Monday, March 1, 2004

Topic: Ohio's germ defense

Locals to hear state official

By Matt Leingang
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ohio's top public health official will give a speech tonight in Cincinnati, updating efforts to prepare the state against bioterrorism threats.

Dr. J. Nick Baird, director of the Ohio Department of Health, is to address the annual meeting of the Hamilton County District Advisory Committee.

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the federal government has channeled about $2 billion to state governments to prepare for acts of bioterrorism - and to combat infectious disease outbreaks and other public health emergencies. Ohio has received about $46 million from the Department of Heath and Human Services.

"I think we are a lot better prepared than we were, but we're not at a level where we need to be. It continues to be a work in progress," Baird said Friday.

All 50 states now have bioterrorism response plans and most, including Ohio, have made major upgrades to their emergency communications systems, Baird said.

Bioterrorism has refocused public health from a system designed to respond to naturally occurring diseases to one concerned with criminal threats. But critics say the country has missed an opportunity to address its shortcomings.

"We are only modestly better prepared," said Shelley Hearne, executive director of the Trust for America's Health, a non-profit group in Washington, D.C. "The federal bioterrorism funds were an important first step. But two years of increased funding for our public health infrastructure cannot make up for nearly two decades of neglect prior to 9-11."

The system still has holes, Hearne said. And to make matters worse, at the same time that this federal money was pouring in, almost two-thirds of states slashed spending for their health departments in 2003 to make up for overall budget problems, Hearne said.

The Trust for America's Health issued a report in December that evaluated state preparedness on 10 indicators, such as response plans and laboratory capabilities. Only four states - California, Florida, Maryland and Tennessee - scored well. The majority of states, including Ohio, got mediocre marks.

Ohio gets points for keeping state health department funding at least level in the face of its budget crisis, Hearne said. The state also has an excellent lab that can test for a wide range of disease and hazardous materials.

But, in Hearne's opinion, Ohio has failed to share at least half of its federal bioterrorism funding with local health departments, does not have the workforce to quickly distribute vaccines and antidotes in case of an attack or other emergency, and still does not have a pandemic flu plan approved by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Baird disagreed with this assessment.

"What you see in this report is only a snapshot," Baird said. "I think it's based on old data, and a lot has changed. We're light years ahead of where we were. But we have to continue to work hard."

If you go

What: The annual meeting of the Hamilton County District Advisory Council, a 30-member group of elected officials that selects members to the Hamilton County General Health District Board of Health. The meeting is open to the public.

Who: Dr. J. Nick Baird, director of the Ohio Department of Health, will speak on "Bioterrorism Preparedness in Ohio."

When: Today at 7:10 p.m.

Where: Mill Race Banquet Center on Mill Golf Course, 1515 W. Sharon Road.



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