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Public Health Laboratories: Unprepared and Overwhelmed

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Abstract:

The nation's 2,000 public health laboratories are the front line protecting Americans from biological, chemical, and radiologic attacks, as well as non-terrorists threats such as West Nile virus, SARS, cancer, and others. Despite their critical role in the nation's health, these laboratories have fallen into a state of disrepair. Nearly every lab in the United States has serious, basic physical plant defects. Few state public health laboratories can adequately respond to specific chemical weapons events. Communications systems are outdated; nearly half of all laboratories do not have electronic mail, for example. Staffing also is inadequate; half of laboratories have no PhD-level experts on staff, and two-thirds report shortages in administrative staff. Eighteen percent of jobs go unfilled nationwide, most likely due to salary levels. Funding of these laboratories remains low, at an average of less than 5 percent of state public health expenditures. Recommended improvements include improved facilities, improved communications, bolstered and stable funding, and a bolstered workforce such that each laboratory employs PhD-level microbiologists and chemists. Annual federal funding of $200 million is recommended for three years beginning in fiscal year 2004, followed by $100 million annually thereafter.