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Center News

US Public Perceptions about the Bioterrorism Threat and Efforts to Respond

The Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), in conjunction with Consensus Research Group, Inc., of New York City, conducted a study of opinions of the general public and opinion leaders to examine public perception about the threat of bioterrorism and about the measures being taken to prevent biological attacks or respond to them.

Methods: All interviews were conducted by Consensus Research Group, Inc., of New York City.

Qualitative Research: A series of four exploratory focus group interviews were conducted among registered voters, ages 30-50, in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Portland, Oregon, metropolitan areas, on June 23 and 24, 2004. A series of 20 personal individual in-depth interviews were conducted among opinion leaders in the Washington, DC, and New York City areas in June 2004. The results of these interviews helped to shape the quantitative research that followed.

Quantitative Research: Study findings are based on a national probability telephone sample of 800 persons, 18 years and older, and distributed 50% male versus 50% female. Random digit dialing allowed for the inclusion of unlisted telephone households and recent changes of residence.

The margin of error in survey sampling is a function of sample size and response level. At the 95% confidence interval for this sample of 800 respondents, the chances are 95 in 100 that the average result reported would fall within +/-3.5 percentage points of results generated from a census of all persons in the universe of interest.

Interviewing was completed during the period September 16 to October 4, 2004.

Summary of Results: The general public is resigned to the probability of terrorist attacks on the United States. Based on past terrorist attacks and current threats, the public believes the nation will encounter events of terrorism (including bioterrorism) in our future and that the best defense is being armed with more information and preparedness by federal and local entities.

Of the people surveyed, 72% said that terrorism, and 65% said that bioterrorism, is a very important or extremely important issue to them. The specific issues that Americans say they are worried about most include:

  • The safety of our reservoirs and water supply (70%);
  • The government's ability to prevent a bioterrorist attack (66%);
  • The training (65%) and ability (64%) of medical personnel to handle a bioterrorist attack;
  • The availability of drugs or vaccines in the event of a bioterrorist attack (64%);
  • The ability of the government to communicate and advise people after a bioterrorist attack (63%);
  • The food supply being contaminated (62%); and
  • The need for government-imposed quarantines after a bioterrorist attack (56%).

When asked to rate their levels of satisfaction with what is being done in their areas of concern, respondents expressed varying degrees of satisfaction, but they thought that the federal government, and to a lesser extent state and local governments and private corporations, should be doing more to address their concerns.

Asked who they thought should be responsible for accumulating enough anthrax vaccine to protect more Americans, 59% of the respondents said the federal government should take this responsibility. The majority (55%) also believed that the federal government should be investing in new technology to evaluate the scale and impact of an epidemic that would be caused by a bioterrorist attack. When asked which level of government is best prepared to prevent a future bioterrorism attack, 68% responded that the federal government was best prepared, but only 50% believed that the federal government is the level of government best prepared to respond after a bioterrorist attack.

Concerning the preparedness of hospitals for a bioterrorism attack, 72% of respondents thought it was very important for hospitals to conduct emergency drills in preparation for possible epidemics or bioterrorist attacks, and 75% thought that the federal or state governments should cover the costs of these drills.

Finally, with regard to the development of new medicines and vaccines, 79% think it is likely that developing medicines and vaccines to protect against bioterror attacks could also lead to breakthroughs in the treatment of AIDS, tuberculosis, or cancer.



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