Our nation’s public health system plays a critical role in helping prevent, respond to and recover from public health emergencies, such as infectious disease outbreaks and terrorist attacks. Dr. Georges Benjamin knows this topic very well. He has studied the system, worked inside the system and has had to implement the system’s emergency measures in times of need. Benjamin will speak to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues at its eleventh public meeting being held today and tomorrow in Chicago where the Commission will continue its analysis of the ethical issues related to conducting clinical trials of medical countermeasures for children.
For the last 10 years, Benjamin has been the executive director of the American Public Health Association, the nation’s oldest and largest organization of public health professionals. A leading expert in public health emergency preparedness and response, Benjamin has served on the National Biodefense Science Board and several Institute of Medicine (IOM) committees on public health emergency preparedness and response, as well as a 2008 IOM workshop titled Medical Countermeasures Dispensing.
As secretary of health for the state of Maryland, Benjamin played a key role in developing Maryland’s bioterrorism plan. Benjamin helped put that plan into action in October 2001 when postal worker and Maryland resident Thomas L. Morris Jr., whose job was to carry mail from the Brentwood Facility in Washington, D.C. to Baltimore Washington International Airport, died from exposure to anthrax. Baltimore City and all 23 of Maryland’s counties responded in order to treat people who had been exposed to anthrax and to address white powder reports across the state.
Benjamin spoke of this experience in June 2012 when he testified before the House Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications. Among the key lessons he said he learned from the 2001 anthrax attacks was the complex process of delivering medical countermeasures.
Benjamin described to the Congressional subcommittee how in 2001 Maryland began by distributing pharmaceuticals from the state’s pharmacy system to get the antibiotic ciprofloxacin to residents quickly to stem further sickness. Maryland then turned to the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS), a national repository of medicine and medical supplies maintained by the CDC. As soon as the SNS supply arrived, it was distributed to local health departments all over the state during the night. Benjamin told the Committee that, without this fast response, those exposed would have had anthrax in their systems for much longer periods of time and there may have been many other serious cases.
Benjamin will speak during a session on Medical Countermeasure Distribution at today’s Commission meeting in Chicago.