- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 10, 2001

A public health official told a Senate panel yesterday American citizens should be vaccinated against anthrax and smallpox, beginning with firefighters and other frontline disaster personnel.

"We cannot afford to not be fully prepared to deal with these diseases. The unthinkable has already happened," said Dr. Mohammad N. Akhter, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

The Indian-born doctor told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that growing up in Pakistan, he saw firsthand the devastating effects of smallpox.

"I say to you, we are underprepared and we better get ready to do the best we can," Dr. Akhter said.

Smallpox was eradicated in 1979, and the vaccination was discontinued.

"We discontinued smallpox immunizations because the threat was low. Now the threat has risen to higher levels once again, and it is time to re-examine that policy," Dr. Akhter said. "We should appoint a high level of experts to look at the risk level and truly re-examine once again whether we should immunize our people against anthrax and smallpox."

Sen. Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said officials should be cautious about speculation the two Florida cases of anthrax are terrorist-related.

"But in light of September 11, the threat is real and increasing," said Mr. Frist, a physician before his election to the Senate.

"We know that anthrax is deadly, we know that. We need to recognize without being an alarmist that anthrax has been weaponized in the past," Mr. Frist said.

Mr. Frist and Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, are proposing a fivefold increase in federal funding to deal with possible bioterrorist attacks.

"Today's hearing will provide further evidence that our $1.4 billion plan is fully justified and that we should act now to provide this emergency funding," Mr. Kennedy said.

"We want to assure all Americans that much has already been done to assure their safety from such an attack and to minimize the spread of biological agents if an attack does occur," Mr. Kennedy said.

Mr. Akhter said the Florida incident is not an isolated event because "someone did something criminal and wrong."

Until the FBI investigation is completed, the doctors said they have no idea the extent of the contaminants.

"The Florida experience tells us someone did grow anthrax. It's another wake-up call that something is out there and we can no longer hide from it," said Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

The panel of doctors said Florida officials quickly and adequately handled the anthrax scare in Boca Raton, Fla., yesterday. The bacteria's presence was quickly diagnosed, and hundreds of American Media Inc. employees lined up for hours outside the health department where they were tested and given medications.

"My initial reaction is amazement at how well the federal organizations and state and local officials actually worked together. I think it's quite remarkable," said Dr. Janet Heinrich, General Accounting Office director of health care.

Firefighters, emergency medical service workers and police officers should be immunized in case of a bioterrorist attack, Dr. Akhter said.

"It would be a tragedy to see these people standing in line and waiting to be immunized so they can go back to the front line to help people," Dr. Akhter said.

An anthrax vaccine is mandated for all members of the military.

Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, said a "significant" dosage is in inventory and production of the vaccine is being accelerated.

"When we get it all sorted out there will be a lot of different preventative measures we will want to make, but I'm not going to be specific today," said Mr. Gregg, ranking committee Republican.

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