Despite being mired in the worst financial crisis in its history, the U.S. Postal Service has no plans to cut back on any of the bioterrorism preparedness measures that began in the wake of anthrax attacks through the U.S. mail system 10 years ago this month.
The attacks, which killed five people, including two Washington, D.C. postal workers; sickened 17 others and for weeks made many Americans fearful of opening the mail.
"The big thing back in 2001 was when the attack occurred, people generally didn't think about it from a standpoint where somebody might try something like that," Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said in a recent phone interview. That mindset has changed, Mr. Donahoe said.
Mr. Donahoe, who was the Postal Service's chief operating officer during the 2001 anthrax attacks, said the mail system spends about $15 million per-year on measures to keep the mail safe from another bioterrorism attack.
Nobody was charged with the anthrax attacks though Bruce Ivins, a biodefense researcher for the government, killed himself in 2008 as the FBI prepared to file charges against him. Still, the FBI's conclusion that he was responsible remains a point of contention.
Since the attacks, postal inspectors have investigated 51,000 unknown or suspicious items in the mail. And each of the hundreds of mail processing facilities across the country now have early warning systems using air sampling technology to detect biohazardous material.
"If anything happens, our people know what to do," he said.
Jude Plessas, countermeasures distribution and delivery manager at the Postal Service, said in a recent interview with Security Management, a trade publication, that the Postal Service's well-publicized money troubles won't impact plans being considered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to have mail carriers dispense antibiotics in case of a large-scale bioterror attack.
"When it comes to delivery, we're required to provide universal service and delivery to every address. If there's a consolidation in a particular city, that doesn't affect the way deliveries are taken care of," Mr. Plessas told Security Management.
"Typically with post office closure, you're dealing with retail and the interface with the public at the counter. That's not what the postal model relies on. Our reliance is actually on the residential delivery of these medications. As long as universal service remains our mandate, we won't see that affect our reach as far as delivery is concerned."
Despite the billions of dollars spent across the federal government on bioterrorism preparedness over the past decade, an alert health-care clinician will likely be the first to warn the nation if another bioterrorism attack is under way, according to the physician who diagnosed the first case of anthrax in 2001.
Robert Stevens, 63, photo editor of the tabloid newspaper The Sun, had just returned from a vacation in North Carolina when he showed up with his wife in the emergency room at JFK Medical Center in Palm Beach, Fla. around 2 a.m. Oct. 2, 2001. Three days later, he died. The physicians who were involved in his treatment and diagnosis recently looked back on the case and concluded that health-care providers are key to thwarting another attack.
"In considering whether we as a nation are now better prepared, it is important to remember that identification of the U.S. index case of anthrax bioterrorism was made possible through the "on-the-ground" ability of individual clinicians and laboratory personnel to recognize a potential case of bioterrorism," Dr. Larry M. Bush and co-author Dr. Maria T. Perez wrote in a recent article in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
"Despite our significant advances in technology and the development of systems designed for bioterrorism preparedness, we firmly believe that an astute clinician will once again be the first to recognize the next patient with an illness resulting from deliberate exposure to a biologic agent."
"You've got to diagnose that first case," Dr. Bush added in a recent phone interview. "That's the alert."
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