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Turning Terror's Tide with Science

By Brian W. Simpson

Responding to the September outbreak of terrorism in America, senior School leadership launched in late October a new comprehensive public health initiative to tackle the complex scientific, social, and governmental issues raised by bioterrorism.

"The School recognizes that this is a national public health emergency. The School has, in many ways, unequaled expertise in the issues related to the acute and urgent problem of anthrax bioterrorism and the longer range strategic issues related to all manner of terrorism," says Dean Al Sommer, MD, MHS '73. "Whether it comes through letters or aerosol sprays or poisoning of water or the food system, it's the responsibility of the School to come to our nation's defense."

In the coming months, more than 60 faculty members will work on bioterrorism preparedness, devise new technologies for detecting anthrax, determine the best therapies, study available antibiotics, and recommend how to best contain outbreaks of anthrax and other biologic, chemical, and nuclear hazards.

The School has a three-pronged goal of providing a scientific basis for rational action, timely and accurate advice for the public and professionals, and training modules for targeted audiences, delivered by the Web, simulcasts, and CD-ROMs.

The new initiative, called Public Health Scientists Working to Address Terrorism (SWAT), will work closely with a related University-wide effort. Thomas Burke, PhD, MPH, an associate professor in Health Policy and Management, is the initiative's director. Other steering committee members include Biostatistics professor Ron Brookmeyer, PhD; International Health professor Don Burke, MD; Environmental Health Sciences professor Lynn Goldman, MD, MPH '81; and Tara O'Toole, MD, MPH '88, the director of the Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies. Two to four faculty members from each of the School's nine departments have been asked to devote the next month or two to providing immediate input to the effort. The initiative will draw on the broad spectrum of the School's expertise, including surveillance, environmental assessment and clean-up, infectious disease and antimicrobial resistance, vaccine development and testing, legal issues, disaster management, and communication.

The short-term efforts do not mean abandoning the School's long-standing research and teaching priorities, according to Sommer. Rather, the short-term work is a "unique activity in the history of the School in response to an urgent national need," he says. "I don't know of any time in the School's history that this has been done."

Thomas Burke envisions teams of public health researchers, focusing on specific areas and providing technical assistance and guidance and help with communication between the government, public health professionals, and the public. The teams would also bring public health risk assessment, epidemiology, and other tools to provide advice on treatment and management of both patients and the "worried well." 

Front-line professionals from across the nation will come to the School for seminars on the latest knowledge in public health preparedness. "You bring in the best and brightest to help them understand the threats and how to attack and ultimately manage them," Burke says.

A former deputy commissioner of health in New Jersey, Burke has seen firsthand the decay in the public health infrastructure through his work and research for reports by the Pew Environmental Health Commission and the Institute of Medicine. He recently secured a $1 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to design a center of excellence in environmental health practice. 

"Right now, the School has all these pockets of expertise," Burke says. "The task is to pull them all together."