Book Excerpt: Bioterror

According to author Michael T. Osterholm, PhD., the question isn't whether we will face a terrorist attack with a deadly viral or bacterial weapon, but when and where — and how devastating it will be. In the following excerpt from his book, Living Terrors, Osterholm presents his prescription for what the U.S. must do as a nation to secure its freedom.


Eight Point Plan: Preparing for Terror

Whatever we do, America will remain a uniquely compelling target for terrorists.

But our lack of preparedness doubtless heightens our vulnerability to bioterror attack. So far, most of what we have done has been to react to incidents; now it is time to act, to prepare. Although the law of diminishing returns understandably limits what actions we should take in the name of prevention, there are nevertheless a few things that must be done at the federal, state, and local levels, and by each of us to make a difference. We can take steps now that could both make it harder for terrorists to commit evil and keep the damage they do from growing out of control. And we can steer the outcome of an attack from the unmitigated disaster of the Chicago scenario to the "mitigated disaster" of Milwaukee.

Below, my eight-point plan for change:

1. Stop Talking About "Weapons of Mass Destruction."

I'm not talking about conveniently erasing these weapons out of our everyday world, though it would be a miracle if such magic actually existed. No, I simply mean it's time to stop lumping all weapons that can kill large numbers of people under the single rubric of WMD. The difference in responding to bioterrorism, as opposed to a chemical or nuclear attack, is like the difference between flying a plane and driving a Formula One car. Both are moving vehicles, but very different skills are required for each one. The overuse of the term "weapons of mass destruction" has done a great deal to stunt the necessary attention to the looming threat of biological terrorism. It has allowed policy makers to throw money at the broader problem, shortchange this narrower one, and still claim to be solving the problem. As we've seen, in contrast to other forms of WMD, bioterrorism response is not primarily a military and law enforcement effort. It's a public health and medical system effort.

I don't actually expect the phrase to go away, any more than I expect the weapons to. Buzzwords are like viruses, neither alive nor dead but moving from host to host, seemingly forever. But we should all insist that policy makers acknowledge that biological terrorism is different from terrorism that relies on chemical weapons or explosives, and deserves separate consideration. That means our budgets at the federal, state, and local levels have to show proper funding for bioterrorism planning, training, monitoring, and stockpiling. In 1999, the CDC supported funding of $41 million for all 50 states and three large metropolitan areasa minuscule amount in light of the $10 billion spent on terrorism. Yet those public health and medical programs are our first, second, and third lines of defense against and in response to a biological weapons attack. To put it bluntly, our priorities are really screwed up.

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