Greg Evans, Ph.D., is a modern-day Paul Revere. In 2000, he created the Center for the Study of Bioterrorism (now the Institute for Biosecurity). He immediately went to work warning health care professionals around the country of the threat, and creating training materials to prepare health care workers to recognize and treat unusual disease outbreaks. But few listened until 9-11 and the subsequent anthrax letters scare. As the U.S. prepares to mark the 10 year anniversary of 9-11, Evans, who directs the Institute for Biosecurity, reflects on how these terrorist attacks changed our country and his program.
|Greg Evans, Ph.D.|
As we approach the 10th anniversary of 9-11, how would you grade the country's response to terrorist threats and preparation for potential threats?
Right after the 9-11 terrorist attack, I think the country made a tremendous effort in enhancing its preparedness for a terrorist attack and other types of potential disasters, like infectious diseases. They worked closely providing money to state and local health departments, and funding research projects. But the further away we've gotten from 9-11, less and less emphasis has been placed on preparedness. My fear is that we've become very complacent about the next terrorist attack. And I definitely think we will have one, it's inevitable. We're going to be less prepared as the years move forward if the country continues to cut funding for these efforts.
What are some of the major changes you've seen since 9-11, both locally and nationally?
After the 9-11 attacks, we saw many positive changes. Money was provided to state and local health departments to hire individuals with expertise in bioterrorism. In almost every major health department, they set up a section to deal with bioterrorism threats. First responders also received funding for equipment and training to respond to terrorist attacks.
Over the years, though, the emphasis has shifted more to pandemic planning and many of the people who were hired to work on bioterrorism were moved over to the area of infectious diseases. There's less emphasis on bioterrorism. But terrorist organizations are still thinking very strongly about using biological agents. A recent New York Times article indicated that they are looking at the potential of using ricin in backpack bombs. Funding for first responders also is drying up.
You created the Center for the Study of Bioterrorism (now the Institute for Biosecurity) before 9-11. Did you envision the kind of response to your program that 9-11 would bring?
We started thinking about the Center in 1999 and it opened in 2000. Our focus was always on bioterroism, because we felt that this was one of the more likely weapons terrorist organizations would use. We created large numbers of fact sheets and other training materials related to bioterrorism.
What happened then was 9-11, and 9-11 was a more traditional attack in that they used planes basically as bombs to explode the World Trade Centers. But that was followed by the anthrax letters. We were getting thousands of requests to provide our factsheets and information because there was just nothing else out there; no one else was working in this area. More and more communities were becoming worried about another bioterrorism event and they wanted to be prepared for it.
Now what we're finding is that every year that goes by, there's less and less requests for those materials. We're becoming very complacent. It's understandable from a psychological standpoint. We don't want to think about these bad things and the further away we get from 9-11 and the anthrax letters, the less we're going to focus on them.
How has the Institute for Biosecurity changed in response to new and growing needs?
Shortly after 9-11, the Centers for Disease Control created centers for public health preparedness to provide training for public health professionals, which was very similar to the things we were doing. Around this time, I was talking to people around the country at conferences and what people were telling me is that what they really needed was an academic program and the ability to get an advanced degree and training in the area of bioterrorism and infectious disease disasters. So we started the master's program in biosecurity and we were pleasantly surprised by the large number of individuals who were interested in this program. We rapidly grew the program to over 90 students. We eventually added an MPH in biosecurity and disaster preparedness because some of our students needed more training in public health. And then we looked further down the line saw that there will be need for more people to be experts and teach in these areas, so we started the Ph.D. program. These programs have been very successful.
Because the program is offered online, we've had students come from all parts of the United States and outside the United States. We've had students who were currently serving in the military in Afghanistan and Iraq. We've had students complete the program while working with the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control. Our programs have been successful in providing that traditional training that is required for people who are going to specialize in biosecurity and preparedness.
Are there other programs like yours?
There is not another program like ours. Our program is the only program that combines public health preparedness with a strong emphasis on bioterrorism and emerging infectious diseases. There are other programs that deal with laboratory investigation of biological agents and there are preparedness programs in schools of public health that have a lighter focus on biological preparedness, but they're more focused on disasters in general. We have a specialty in the areas of infectious disease disasters - both terrorist and naturally occurring.