Where would you go if the Bay Area was attacked with biological weapons? Where would you turn for information or treatment?
After receiving a $2.8 million influx of federal funds last month, UC Berkeley has begun working to provide these answers. With the formation of the Center for Infectious Disease Preparedness, UC Berkeley joins 17 other universities around the country preparing a national response to an epidemic health crisis, like small pox or anthrax infection.
“The weaknesses of the nation’s public health infrastructure were made clear in last year’s anthrax attacks,” said Dr. Arthur Reingold, professor and head of epidemiology at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health.
The center does not yet have facilities or office space, but staff have already begun addressing its mission to teach health and law enforcement workers how to respond to bioterrorism. Ultimately, officers will also be trained on early surveillance and detection of biological weapons.
Despite good intentions, the development of the bioterrorism centers has had its critics. They say the scope of bioterrorism is so large that isolated centers will have little impact in preparing for a specific strike.
“Too many people in Washington feel that by dispensing billions in the wake of September's horrors, they've done their bit and all is now well,” said George Poste, a board-certified pathologist and member of the Defense Science Board of the U.S. Department of Defense. “The challenge in formulating biodefense postures is that the spectrum of risk is so broad.”
University researchers, though, say their efforts are worthwhile.
“All steps forward, no matter how small, are steps in the right direction,” said UC Berkeley spokesperson Sarah Yang. “Any training is better than none at all.”
Stephen Shortell, dean of the School of Public Health, said that because of the university’s knowledge base and facilities, researchers are well situated to advance the nation’s defense effort.
“This is a primary example of the school’s commitment to moving the knowledge base from publication of research to public action,” he said.
The Berkeley team is composed of 10 researchers who are all experts in epidemiology, the study of disease in populations. Researchers from county health departments in San Francisco and Alameda counties, as well as staff from the Public Health Institute in Berkeley will also contribute.
The center’s grant is part of a $3 billion bioterrorism initiative launched by President Bush earlier this year. The center, which has guaranteed funding for the next three years, plans to work closely with state and local health officials, as well as the California Highway Patrol, to identify training needs. All 18 academic centers will work collaboratively.
Government efforts to prepare for bioterrorism will only be effective if the American people are proactive in keeping themselves informed and alert, said Poste.
“It saddens me to say this, but the vast majority of Americans, even though they were shocked by the events of Sept. 11, are quickly reverting back to worrying more about whether Mr. Combs wishes to call himself Puff Daddy or P Diddy,” he said.
“They have lost sight of the fact that America will almost certainly be bitten again by terrorist assaults. A comfortable, complacent society that is cocooned from risk is a great target for our enemies,” Poste added.