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Leadership and an Engaged Public Improve Bioterror Response

BALTIMORE -- September 9, 2004 -- Ten thousand top government officials across the country have now received How to Lead During Bioattacks with the Public's Trust and Help, a publication of the UPMC Center for Biosecurity that gives decision-makers practical advice on how to handle the dilemmas that can arise in a public health emergency: How does a community stop disease that spreads from person-to-person and still respect individual freedoms? How do authorities earn people's trust when distributing scarce, potentially life-saving medical resources in a world of haves and have-nots? How can leaders maintain credibility when they must make decisions before all the facts are in?

The handbook, distributed in August and already in a second printing, provides mayors, governors, and public health officers with a research-based set of "best practices and principles" for safeguarding the public's trust and cooperation during a response. "Community members are our greatest asset in controlling an outbreak, and it's up to leaders to make sure disaster plans incorporate them, from crisis communication to volunteer mobilization," explains Monica Schoch-Spana, PhD, lead author and senior fellow with the UPMC Center for Biosecurity. "Terrorism preparedness and response programs typically approach the public as a 'problem' that needs managing. Officials often see the public as uninformed, fearful, and prone to panic. This guidebook takes the opposite perspective. The public is capable and willing."

The guidebook presents recommendations from an expert Working Group convened by the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) that included decision-makers at local, state, and federal levels; health officers who have managed high-profile events; experts in infectious disease, disaster recovery, and risk communication; advocates for special populations; and veteran health and national security reporters. The aim was to give U.S. leaders problem-solving strategies for engaging the public during bioattacks and epidemics. The publication's release coincides with National Preparedness Month (September), a Department of Homeland Security campaign to encourage citizen preparedness for terrorism.

Because they are hard to predict, epidemics may provoke fear, contradictory impulses, and competing social agendas. Leaders and the publics they serve may deny that a problem exists or, conversely, rush to fix the problem too quickly. The handbook gives political leaders, health officials, and the public a common language and purpose for handling these special kinds of emergencies: limit death and suffering through proper preventive care, halt disease in ways that respect civil liberties, tend to vulnerable groups like children, preserve economic stability, discourage scapegoating, and help affected individuals and groups recover from tragic events.

Elected officials and leading public health and safety leaders have praised the booklet:

  • Martin O'Malley, Mayor of Baltimore and co-chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' homeland security task force: "Bioterrorism is one of the most pressing and complex security concerns facing mayors in our time, and we need to be prepared mentally and organizationally. This guidebook may help mayors avoid the pitfalls of crisis response that can prove costly - both economically and in terms of public trust."
  • Georges C. Benjamin, MD, FACP, executive director of the American Public Health Association: "Ensuring public confidence in time of crisis is an essential leadership function. This resource is designed to give policy-makers a tool in making high-stakes decisions while maintaining the respect of the public."
  • GEN (R) Dennis Reimer, Director of the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism: "This guidebook presents a commonsense approach to bioterrorism and epidemic emergency management. It's a wonderful example of the kind of information needed to keep our country prepared."

This project, in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins University, was funded by the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Domestic Preparedness, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.



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