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Perceptions about bioterrorism could impair the nation’s response

A new study has found that while a majority of health care professionals surveyed believe the United States is at a high or somewhat high risk of bioterrorism, the same professionals believe that their individual communities are at low risk of an attack. “It appears to be an it-can’t-happen-to-me response,” said Brooke Shadel, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of public health and associate director of the Center for the Study of Bioterrorism and Emerging Infections at Saint Louis University School of Public Health. “But here’s the problem. If you perceive the risk is low in your community then you may not value training information and you may be less likely to seek out information or maintain current references. This low perception of risk may leave the professionals who are supposed to be on the frontlines of such an event unprepared, and that’s our concern.”
From Saint Louis University School of Public Health :Perceptions about the threat of bioterrorism could impair the nation’s response

ST. LOUIS-A study by researchers at Saint Louis University School of Public Health found that while a majority of health care professionals surveyed believe the United States is at a high or somewhat high risk of bioterrorism (74 percent), the same professionals believe that their individual communities are at low risk of an attack (32 percent).

“It appears to be an it-can’t-happen-to-me response,” said Brooke Shadel, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of public health and associate director of the Center for the Study of Bioterrorism and Emerging Infections at Saint Louis University School of Public Health. “But here’s the problem. If you perceive the risk is low in your community then you may not value training information and you may be less likely to seek out information or maintain current references. This low perception of risk may leave the professionals who are supposed to be on the frontlines of such an event unprepared, and that’s our concern.”

Shadel and her co-investigators at Saint Louis University (Greg Evans, Bruce Clements, Terri Rebmann and John J. Chen) surveyed more than 1,200 infection control practitioners (ICP) throughout all 50 states. An ICP is someone whose job it is to identify and control infectious outbreaks. In this study, which was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Infection (CDC), the majority of those surveyed were nurses.

Shadel and her colleagues also found that ICPs in the Midwest and in rural areas felt they were less at risk of attack than ICPs living in urban areas and in other regions of the country. Study details were published in the current issue of the American Journal of Infection Control.

Shadel said the investigation was designed to identify not only risk perceptions about bioterrorism and emerging infections but to understand how receptive ICPs are to training and how they prefer to receive the information.

“We asked the practitioners where they would go for information if there were a crisis and a majority said the Internet or a hotline,” Shadel said. “By studying other events, such as the West Nile outbreak in 1999 and the World Trade Center bombing in 2001, we know that these technologies aren’t always available. Power goes down. Phone lines are jammed. These technologies may not be adequate resources during a crisis.”

Shadel said the research demonstrates the need for reference materials, such as pocket cards and CD ROMs, that are not reliant on these technologies. The Center for the Study of Bioterrorism and Emerging Infections at Saint Louis University has been working with the CDC to develop such materials over the past three years. The center’s mission is to provide public health and health care facilities with the tools needed for preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation of intentional or naturally occurring outbreaks. Shadel said recent events are making this task easier.

“I think the SARS outbreak, even more than the anthrax scare, helped health care professionals realize the potentially devastating consequences of an event,” Shadel said. “They saw how quickly the disease spread from person to person, its impact on the economy and how quickly it created a fury for the need for information. We have that information. We just have to work toward better awareness and improved infrastructure for delivering it.”

Saint Louis University School of Public Health is one of only 32 fully accredited schools of public health in the United States and the nation’s only School of Public Health sponsored by a Jesuit university. It offers masters degrees (MPH, MHA) and doctoral programs (Ph.D.) in six public health disciplines and joint degrees with the Schools of Allied Health, Business, Law, Medicine, Nursing and Social Service. It is home to seven nationally recognized research centers and laboratories with funding sources that include the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Health Resources and Services Administration, the American Cancer Society, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the World Health Organization.

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