THE MAGAZINE

The State of Bioterrorism Surveillance

By Lilly Chapa

A week after the 9-11 attacks, five threatening anonymous letters were sent to media outlets. Two weeks later, reporter Robert Stevens became the first person to die from inhaling anthrax that was enclosed with the letters. The case widened as anthrax-laden letters were sent to two Senators—one of the letters arrived at a Capitol Hill office and the other was routed to a mail facility, where it infected postal workers. Before the terror ended, 22 people developed infections and five died.

In response, the federal government set up the BioWatch program, an early warning network of sensors that would detect biological attacks before widespread public infection could occur. By the time President George W. Bush publicly announced the program in 2003, BioWatch filters had been deployed in 31 cities and more than $60 million had been spent on the program.

The program came under criticism early on. In 2003, a congressional report raised concerns about almost every aspect of BioWatch, from the funding to the implementation to the scope of coverage. Today, more than $1 billion has been spent on the program, which has expanded to 34 cities across the United States, yet the concerns about the program remain.

BioWatch Basics

BioWatch has deployed outdoor collectors in all of the cities where it is operational and indoor collectors in three locales; more can be deployed during major events. The collectors hold filters that gather air samples, and a government worker manually retrieves the filters and delivers them to laboratories for testing every 24 hours.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Health Affairs oversees and coordinates the BioWatch program. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitors the filters, which are deployed with existing EPA equipment that monitors air quality. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides technical assistance in testing the air samples for pathogens terrorists are likely to use in a biological attack, including anthrax, small pox, plague, and tularemia. The FBI gets involved whenever a BioWatch Actionable Result (BAR), a positive result, is recorded. But state and local health officials take on the brunt of the day-to-day management of the program.
 

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