CDC Cuts Could Hurt Bioterror Effort

Health advocates warned that president's proposal to cut nearly $800 million from CDC budget could make nation more vulnerable to bioterror epidemics

Chambliss, a Republican from Moultrie, wrote White House budget officials in December, urging them to spare CDC funding, particularly for construction projects. He described existing agency facilities as being in a "state of extreme disrepair."

"In the event of a biological or chemical attack, Americans look to the CDC for help, research, cures and answers," Chambliss wrote to Josh Bolten, Bush's top budget official. "It is critical that we provide them with modern equipment and facilities to continue improving our public health preparedness."

Staff at the CDC, who declined to speak on the record, said Saturday that rumors of budget cuts have circulated for weeks. The proposed cutbacks would be demoralizing, staff members said, because they would follow cuts made last year -- including those not specified by Congress but imposed internally by CDC's ongoing reorganization.

Staff members said their colleagues have been disturbed by recent departures at the agency. In the past 18 months, the CDC has lost a number of long-serving staff in high-profile positions to retirement, including some who left years before their mandatory retirement deadline. The directorships of six of the CDC's 12 major centers are vacant, along with two new directorships created by the reorganization.

Public health spending has increased considerably since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, but advocates say many more improvements are needed. A December report by Trust for America's Health said that two-thirds of the states met six or fewer of the 10 indicators of public health preparedness.

Few states are ready for bioterror threats in the form of chemical or radiological agents, Shelley Hearne, executive director of the Washington-based nonprofit organization, said Saturday. More progress has been made against biological threats, but there still aren't enough people who know how to test for germs such as anthrax or bubonic plague, she said.

Bioterrorism "is still probably the weakest link in homeland security," she said. "There are still enormous gaps out there."