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Public Health Experts: US Unprepared for Bioterrorism

On Capitol Hill, Congress heard frightening expert testimony today on the subject of bioterrorism. CBS's Bob Schieffer reports.

The discovery of anthrax in Florida has left the nation on hair-trigger alert for signs of bioterrorism.

A subway station in the Washington suburbs was shut down after a man caused a commotion on a train and sprayed police with something from a pump-action bottle. Firemen were called in to hose down the area.

The spray turned out to be a cleaning solution. But the station remained closed, and several dozen passengers were isolated until tests determined the spray was harmless.

Such precautions may be prudent in light of what public health officials told the Senate today: They said a bioterrorist attack would be nothing like the attack on the twin towers.

"There would be no indiscreet event. No explosion. No immediate, obvious disaster. We would know we had been attacked only when people began appearing in emergency rooms and doctors' offices," says Donald Henderson, director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies.

Experts agreed that the country is not geared to handle such an attack.

"Based on our contacts with hospitals and hospital associations, we believe that 500 patients would overwhelm the healthcare systems of most cities," Henderson says.

"The unthinkable has already happened and I as a public official can't sit here and say, 'Yeah, we're ready, we're prepared.' I say to you we are unprepared," says Dr. Mohammad Akhter, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

The panel of scientists told senators that getting prepared may require everything from better coordination between public health and emergency officials--currently there is virtually none-- to improved food inspection, reintroduction of mandatory smallpox vaccination, and stockpiling of more vaccines.

Congress has heard many of these warnings before. But this time, they seemed to be paying attention.

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