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Biological Threats

Anthrax
Public Health Labs Respond to Bioterrorism

Prior to October 2001, bioterrorism was a vague concern for Americans. Then came the delivery of the first anthrax-laden letter, and suddenly bioterrorism was a real and present threat.

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On October 4, 2001, a state public health laboratory in Florida confirmed the first case in what became known as the “anthrax attacks,” and issued an alert to the public health community. Within days, members of the Laboratory Response Network (LRN) were inundated with suspect samples of every imaginable type. Donuts, packages, clothing—even a body—arrived for analysis. Ultimately, the public health laboratory members of the LRN handled 70% of the anthrax testing, conducting over a million tests on 125,000 samples to distinguish between real and apparent threats, thus calming a frightened public. Laboratory scientists worked grueling hours to conduct analyses that would drive decisions by medical practitioners, law enforcement and public health officials. Public health laboratories were also on the front line testing environmental samples from United States Postal Service (USPS) facilities for Bacillus anthracis, the causative agent of anthrax.

In the years following 2001, significant federal and state investment in public health preparedness strengthened laboratory capability and capacity to respond to health threats, both man-made or naturally occurring. This investment proved invaluable in  responding to Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and other natural disasters. It also readied public health laboratories to respond to the nationwide outbreak of  2009 H1N1 influenza and to the latest emerging diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

Federal and state support for public health preparedness has declined significantly since the beginning of the economic recession in 2009. It is unclear how laboratory response capability will be maintained in the future.

​APHL's Role in Lab Response to Health Threats

APHL works to strengthen communications and collaboration across national laboratory systems and between public health laboratories and the federal government. It also collaborates with partners to explain the importance of maintaining a robust laboratory response system.

APHL develops training, policy, and diagnostic and practice guidelines on bioterrorism and other public health preparedness issues. It publishes an annual  assessment of state public health laboratory capability to prepare for and respond to all-hazard threats, including biological, chemical and radiological agents. Please see the sidebar for annual assessment reports and data summaries through 2013.