A new coalition of American health care and emergency response organizations says the country's readiness for biological, chemical and nuclear terrorism is woefully inadequate. The groups have banded together to alert the public and policymakers of the need to greatly increase spending for disaster preparedness.
The coalition representing firefighters, hospitals, emergency room doctors, nurses, public health departments and medical schools says billions of dollars are needed to coordinate and strengthen their response to potential events like the September terrorist attacks and anthrax outbreaks.
The groups say further acts of mass terrorism, a natural disaster or a outbreak of deadly disease would overtax the nation's health and emergency services.
The president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, Dr. Michael Carius, told reporters in Washington that many U.S. hospitals lack staff and resources even for routine emergencies.
"The nation's emergency departments are overcrowded and must divert ambulances to other hospitals or risk jeopardizing patient care," he said. "Hundreds of emergency departments have closed in the United States in the past 10 years while the number of emergency department visits has increased dramatically."
Physician groups say their members are not trained to handle mass biological, chemical, or nuclear disasters. Firefighters complain of a lack of communication frequencies and protective gear for such emergencies. The coalition says the recent terrorist and anthrax events, which took nearly 4,000 lives, point out the need for their groups to coordinate their response to mass casualty incidents.
They call for improved emergency communications infrastructure, better disaster planning at local and state levels, enhanced disease surveillance and reporting, improved protection for frontline response teams, more training programs, and community drills.
Congress is debating legislation to spend more than $3 billion on such projects. But the coalition partners describe the measure as merely a downpayment. Hospitals alone, they say, need more than $11 billion to improve their emergency capabilities.
The head of the American Public Health Association, Dr. Mohammed Akhter, says public health and emergency services have been neglected for 10 years because of complacency. Life expectancy has risen steadily while infant deaths have declined and infectious disease threats dramatically reduced. Dr. Akhter calls for a 10 year financial commitment to make up for the money shortages.
"This is the first time in America's history that we have more casualties at home than we have abroad in this war against terrorism. You know the reason for that? It's unpreparedness. We spend billions of dollars building external defenses. We need to do the same kind of thing developing internal defenses," he said.
Dr. Akhter says the public must become a partner in this effort by supporting the campaign and volunteering during emergencies.