by Joel Gilbertson and Richard Mandsager
December 30, 2004
Alaskans should know that Alaska is better prepared than ever before to detect and respond to a bioterrorist attack or other public health emergency. The data presented by this group were misleading, inaccurate or outdated in several cases, and poorly documented. More important, we are moving forward with efforts to further strengthen our system.
Take preparations for a potential influenza "pandemic" (global epidemic), for example. Public health officials worldwide worry that the next outbreak of avian ("bird") flu in the Eastern Hemisphere could mutate to become a highly virulent human disease. The trust criticized Alaska for not having a publicly available pandemic flu plan.
While some states may have a nice paper document sitting on a shelf and thus meet the trust's standard in that regard, Alaska's public health officials have been hard at work ensuring that our high-risk population is immunized against flu this season in spite of the nationwide shortage, and conducting mass vaccination clinic exercises to test our ability to deliver vaccine to many people in a very short period of time should the circumstances and the public demand it. Alaska maintains an excellent surveillance system for early detection of flu -- one that is used as a beacon for identification of new influenza strains by the rest of the country.
The Alaska Legislature, with forethought and good judgment, supported the building of a new state-of-the-art public health laboratory in Anchorage four years ago for moder scientific monitoring, diagnosis and assessment of the health, safety and security of the people of Alaska. Our laboratory is the only lab in the state operating at a biological safety level of three-plus. The Anchorage Public Health Laboratory has the capacity to detect and identify biological, chemical and radiological threats. In fact, our lab is one of only 23 in the nation with the ability to identify smallpox, one of 12 able to identify botulism and one of seven nationwide able to identify cyanide exposure in humans.
There is always room for improvement, however, and we are continually evaluating to identify needs for strengthening our public health system and capacities. For example, the laboratory facility where virology testing is conducted, in Fairbanks, is outdated and lacks adequate space. Gov. Frank Murkowski will bring a proposal to the Legislature this year requesting funds to build a new virology laboratory on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. This is a win-win proposition that will provide the state-run lab with "free" land, a state-of-the-art virology facility, and a wonderful opportunity for sharing scientific capacity with university research scientists.
Another area in need of strengthening is establishment of the legal authorities (and also the legal limits) for public health officials to detect and respond to a public health threat. As the trust accurately reported in this case, the Department of Health and Social Services does not have clear laws governing our ability to quarantine or isolate people in the rare case that this approach may be required to protect the public from the spread of a highly contagious and life-threatening disease. Recognizing the need for clarification in our public health statutes, including addition of modern due-process protections of individual rights should these measures ever become necessary, Gov. Murkowski is proposing new legislation to update our public health laws.
Beyond the work noted above, Alaska's public health officials are working every day to protect and promote health in your community. With the help of all Alaskans, our state will continue making significant strides forward to ensure that we are better prepared than any other state to detect and respond to public health threats. We look forward to your support on the new legislative proposals to strengthen our state's public health system.
Note: Joel Gilbertson is Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and Dr. Richard Mandsager is the Director of the Alaska Division of Public Health.
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