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Biological Terrorism, Emerging Diseases, and National Security

NCJ Number
Christopher F. Chyba
Date Published
28 pages
This report makes the case that public health and national security should merge in the fight against emerging diseases and biological terrorism.
This report argued that public health surveillance for emerging diseases and preparedness for biological terrorism were strongly related. The report surveyed possible scales of bioterrorist attacks and the extent to which these have proven or may prove difficult to distinguish from outbreaks of emerging diseases. Building on these examples, the report makes recommendations for how the United States could better meet the threat of biological terrorism. These recommendations range from domestic and international improvements in public health surveillance, the need for improved coordination within the U.S. Government, and plausible verification measures for the Biological Weapons Convention. Many potential biological agents have incubation times in people that are long compared to contemporary national and international travel times. This endows these agents with special advantages as terrorist weapons compared to other potential means of mass destruction. The possibility of contagion (in the case of agents such as smallpox) is a further terror advantage. These aspects of biological agents emphasize the importance of a strategy of public health surveillance for incidents of bioterrorism--a strategy that is inapplicable to the case of chemical or nuclear attacks. Preparing for bioterrorism requires improving the sensitivity and “connectivity” of public health surveillance systems in the United States and overseas. Domestically, physicians and other public health-care workers must be given the training needed to recognize or at least suspect unusual diseases. The ability to check these suspicions quickly at the State, regional, and national levels must be available. Within the U.S. Government, coordination between public health, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies should be strengthened. Internationally, the United States should work with foreign governmental, multilateral, and non-governmental organizations to improve global surveillance for suspicious outbreaks. The right for international investigations of such outbreaks should be negotiated as a verification measure to the Biological Weapons Convention. This report made specific recommendations in each of these areas. An appropriate national security response to the threat of biological terrorism should build directly upon the improved public health surveillance needed to combat the environmental threat of emerging disease. In this context, responsibility for national security extends throughout society, from primary care physician and pathologists at local hospitals and clinics, to State and national health laboratories and officials, to public health surveillance networks overseas. These responsibilities need to be matched with appropriate resources. Public health and national security should merge in the realm of emerging diseases and biological terrorism. References