Revisiting the anthrax attacks

Jan 22, 2009

When anthrax was sent through the U.S. Postal Service in 2001, an overwhelming majority of postal workers elected not to be inoculated with the available vaccine because of confusion and distrust, according to a University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health study. Although the FBI officially closed the case on the attacks this year, lingering suspicion and uncertainty remain, say study authors, which could influence the public's reactions to future emergencies.

According to the report, reactions from postal workers were shaped partially by fears of being experimental "guinea pigs," disagreements among public health agencies about whether the vaccine should be recommended, physician advice, low perceived risk of infection and conflicting reports from national media organizations.

The study was based on interviews and focus groups conducted with 65 postal workers in Trenton, N.J., New York and Washington, and published in the December 2008 issue of Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science.

"The reaction of postal workers demonstrates the essential need to build trust and educate the public before the uncertainty, confusion and time pressures of a bioterrorism or pandemic emergency create major barriers for clear communication," said study author, Sandra Quinn, Ph.D., associate dean for Student Affairs and Education and associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health. These concerns may be particularly relevant given that, in October 2008, the Department of Health and Human Services declared anthrax as a continuing bioterrorism threat through the end of 2015, she said.

During the 2001 anthrax attacks, which resulted in five deaths, 10,000 postal workers and others who were suspected or confirmed to have been exposed received a two-month dose of antibiotics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) then recommended people who failed to complete the regimen or who were at high risk for exposure take antibiotics for an additional 40 days with or without a supplemental anthrax vaccine. Only 11.5 percent of postal workers who took the additional 40-day dose of antibiotics agreed to take the anthrax vaccine as a precautionary measure.

"Scientific knowledge about the effectiveness of the vaccine after exposure to anthrax was uncertain at the time, making it an almost impossible task to communicate precise and proper health information to postal workers and other affected groups, including Senate staff," said Dr. Quinn. "Given the evolving nature of the crisis, postal workers were unsure whose advice they should trust and as a result, many decided to do without the recommended vaccination," she said.

In 2004, with the passage of legislation to establish Project Bioshield, the federal government created a mechanism for declaring public health emergencies. This authority also allows the Food and Drug Administration to authorize the use of experimental or "off label" drugs to address bioterrorism or public health emergencies. According to Dr. Quinn, communication about the use of these counter measures will present significant challenges for public health authorities in the future.

To address these challenges, she suggests public health experts openly acknowledge disagreements between health agencies, develop partnerships with trusted community agencies and work with media partners to address inaccuracies, misconceptions or other issues that may arise in news reports.

"We need to engage and educate the public before an emergency occurs to prevent unnecessary risk, disease and even death. Only by doing this can individuals make informed decisions about accepting or rejecting counter measures," she said.

Source: University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

Explore further: Bulletproof nuclei? Stem cells exhibit unusual absorption property

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

In Europe, most swine flu shots by invitation only

Nov 06, 2009

(AP) -- In Britain, there are no long lines of people seeking swine flu vaccine. Doctor's offices aren't swamped with desperate calls. And there are no cries of injustice that the vaccine is going to wealthy ...

Silicon Nanotechnology to Combat Biowarfare Agents

Sep 06, 2005

In fall 2001, several letters containing deadly spores were sent to targeted spots across the county. The documents threatened the lives of postal workers, government administrative workers, officials and others. ...

Recommended for you

Plants with dormant seeds give rise to more species

Apr 18, 2014

Seeds that sprout as soon as they're planted may be good news for a garden. But wild plants need to be more careful. In the wild, a plant whose seeds sprouted at the first warm spell or rainy day would risk disaster. More ...

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

(Phys.org) —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

Making graphene in your kitchen

Graphene has been touted as a wonder material—the world's thinnest substance, but super-strong. Now scientists say it is so easy to make you could produce some in your kitchen.