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The Washington Quarterly 25.3 (2002) 69-82

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Public Health Preparedness:
The Best Defense against Biological Weapons

Rebecca Katz

Within the past two years, two major exercises have tested the U.S. government's preparedness for, and capacity to respond to, a large-scale, covert biological weapons attack. TOPOFF, led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Justice in May 2000, and Dark Winter, directed by CSIS in May 2001, found that the United States was ill prepared to detect and respond effectively to a bioterrorist attack in a way that would prevent the attack from escalating into a major security crisis. These exercises demonstrated the devastating impact a bioterrorist attack can have when initiated against a poorly prepared government: hundreds of thousands dead or sick, widespread panic, a resultant breakdown of civil society, and the suppression of individual rights in order to control the spread of disease.

TOPOFF and Dark Winter revealed how a biological weapons attack is unlike an attack utilizing conventional weapons or even another type of weapon of mass destruction. Although the Department of Defense and typical first-responders (local fire and police departments) ably handle the defense against, management of, and deterrence of most weapons, these actors are not sufficient for detection and control of a biological attack. Maintaining homeland security against a biological attack requires a strong civil defense rooted in the capabilities of a new player in the realm of national security: the public health system.

The public health system is a federal, state, and local infrastructure responsible for monitoring health status, diagnosing and investigating health problems, linking people to health services, enforcing health laws [End Page 69] and regulations, assuring a competent health workforce, communicating with the public, disseminating information, and conducting scientific research. 1 This system plays a vital role in an effective defense against biological weapons. A strong public health system can quickly identify the presence of a biological attack, contain the number of patients, help restore calm to society, and ensure the health of the population. Understanding the role of public health will allow policymakers to structure a comprehensive weapons defense, allocate funds appropriately, and set up collaborative efforts.

Preparedness and Response to Biological Weapons

Preparedness for biological weapons use necessitates the expertise of many federal, state, and local governmental agencies that can engage in the two phases of security: before and after an attack. Biological security involves the military, law enforcement, State Department, intelligence community, and first-responders, as well as agencies such as the Departments of Agriculture and Justice and the U.S. Customs Service. Public health is just one layer in a comprehensive biological defense, but it is a crucial component—particularly after an attack.


Preattack prevention strategies consist of defensive measures, offensive measures, and political maneuvers designed to make vulnerable populations less susceptible to attack. 2 A major component of preattack defensive measures is increased security in areas that are likely venues for an attack, such as the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in potential target buildings, water storage areas, and food processing plants. Other defensive measures include monitoring or restricting the sale of equipment necessary to make biological weapons, as well as registering and approving those trained to do certain types of microbiology or biochemical engineering.

Offensive measures to prevent attack rely primarily on the ability of the military and intelligence communities to disable terrorists or nations physically from using biological weapons. This effort requires exceptional intelligence on what groups or nations have weapons, where those weapons are kept, and the purpose for which they are intended. After intelligence is garnered [End Page 70] and interpreted, either political maneuvering would dissuade nations or groups from deploying the weapons, or preemptive strikes may attempt to wipe out arsenals.


Because of the difficulties inherent in biological weapons detection (both of their production sites and initial releases), the bulk of preparedness involves postattack scenarios, which require clear and coordinated response plans to ensure that an attack affects the smallest number of people possible. An effective postattack strategy has many...


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pp. 69-82
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Archived 2009
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