June 5, 2003 Washington, D.C. — National public health experts reported today that front-line health care responders are not adequately prepared to identify and control major outbreaks of waterborne disease, including outbreaks resulting from acts of terrorism. The conclusions were reported at a conference convened by the American College of Preventive Medicine on waterborne disease and acts of water terrorism. Michael Sage, Deputy Director of CDC's Office of Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response, likened health care providers to front-line soldiers in the war on terror. The heightened risk of terrorist attack -- evidence has been uncovered suggesting that terrorists may be targeting municipal water systems -- underscores the need for practicing health care providers to be able to recognize unusual disease trends and early warning signs that may result from intentional contamination of water supplies.
According to Dr. Patricia Meinhardt, a waterborne disease expert from New York, "Health care providers may not be able to prevent the first cases of illnesses resulting from intentional acts of water terrorism, but they can play a critical role in minimizing the impact of such an event by practicing medicine with a heightened level of suspicion that such an attack can occur. With prompt diagnosis, proper management, and collaboration with public health and water authorities, prepared health care professionals may make the difference between a controlled response to an act of water terrorism versus a public health crisis." Many challenges confront health care providers in the event of outbreaks of waterborne disease, either from naturally occurring threats or from intentional contamination:
Many of the signs and symptoms of waterborne disease and the health effects of water pollution are non-specific and often mimic more common medical conditions and disorders. Waterborne exposure events in a healthy patient population often present as benign symptoms or self-limited illness while the same exposure events in a vulnerable patient population may result in significant illness, including chronic and life-threatening disease. Patients may not be aware of previous waterborne exposure and may not be able to provide an accurate exposure history. According to Dr. Robert Harmon, President of the American College of Preventive Medicine, "We need to prepare health care professionals before outbreaks occur to respond quickly and effectively, and not hope to bring the workforce up to speed after a public health crisis has begun."
Dr. Meinhardt and ACPM have developed a comprehensive online educational program to help health care providers prepare for outbreaks of waterborne disease, both from naturally occurring outbreaks as well as from acts of intentional water contamination. The online program can be viewed at http://www.WaterHealthConnection.org.
The American College of Preventive Medicine is the national professional society for physicians committed to disease prevention and health promotion. ACPM's 2,000 members are engaged in preventive medicine practice, teaching and research. ACPM advocates for the specialty of preventive medicine and for national policies that promote health and prevent disease. ACPM maintains an active presence on Capitol Hill and among the many federal agencies and non-governmental organizations that shape national health policy.
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