President Bush should appoint a physician to the Office of Homeland Security because physicians will be the ones who diagnose and treat diseases related to bioterrorist attacks, the AMA says.
A resolution unanimously adopted by the AMA's House of Delegates in December calls on Bush to add a physician with "a strong background in infectious disease or bioterrorism" in an official advisory capacity to the recently created Office of Homeland Security.
The resolution was adopted during the AMA's semiannual meeting in San Francisco.
Some delegates supported having the surgeon general or the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention take that role. The adopted policy didn't detail who should fill the position.
Meanwhile, the government will expand its bioterrorism preparedness programs through hospitals and city and county public health agencies nationwide.
Prior to Sept. 11, CDC grants funded preparedness programs in just two cities and nine states. But that effort will expand soon, financed by part of a $200 million congressional appropriation, according to Patrick Meehan, M.D., director of the division of emergency environmental health services at the CDC.
"We're anticipating to be able to fund all 50 states for disaster preparedness in the next couple of months," Meehan says. "We will have an agreement with the states that a significant portion of the money they receive will go to local entities so they can plan with their local hospitals."
Those local entities include city and county public health agencies.
The AMA added more than seven hours of sessions on bioterrorism and disaster preparedness to the schedule of its delegates meeting. Topics included disaster planning at the local level and dealing with long-term mental health issues following attacks.
According to the delegates, practicing physicians need additional education to recognize symptoms of previously unlikely diseases such as smallpox and anthrax.
They also need to know that they should report anything suspicious to their state health department.
"Many of us did not see these diseases in medical school," says AMA trustee Ronald Davis, M.D., director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.
Outgoing Surgeon General David Satcher, M.D., told delegates the best way to deal with bioterrorist attacks is to build a strong public health system.
Communication between federal, state and local public health agencies, physicians and the public is key.
The CDC needs more financing to be able to detect earlier outbreaks and to mobilize medications and epidemiologists, Satcher said in a press briefing.
"We should be ashamed as a nation of the current condition of the laboratories," he says, explaining that some CDC labs are outdated and some local health labs lack basic technology such as computers and fax machines.
AMA officials are earmarking up to $1.5 million for homeland security issues.
The delegates also adopted a resolution for the AMA to study the risk of vaccinating everyone in the nation against smallpox.
Reporter Rebecca Lentz contributed to this story.