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Anthrax Talk Set for Mon.

Edgy staffers worried about a repeat performance of the 2001 anthrax attack on Capitol Hill will have a chance to hear an expert’s assessment of the crisis Monday, as well as recommendations for improving bioterrorism response strategies.

The RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization with a specialty in national security issues, will hold a lunchtime briefing Monday titled “Preparedness for Terrorism: Behavioral and Psychological Implications from Anthrax 2001.”

“The recent false alarm at the Pentagon reminded us that bioterrorism remains a serious threat today and these findings are relevant to how our nation prepares for possible future attacks,” Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) wrote in a recent “Dear Colleague” letter urging aides to attend the briefing.

Kennedy’s spearheading of the briefing, an aide explained, is in keeping with the Rhode Island Congressman’s efforts to combat the psychological effects of terrorism. In 2003, the lawmaker introduced the National Resilience Development Act, which is aimed at integrating “mental health into public health efforts” during crisis periods.

RAND’s presentation will feature Terri Tanielian, a senior social research analyst at the think tank. Tanielian has examined the response of the public health system to the October 2001 anthrax attacks, the attitudes of the individuals directly affected and the implications for future public health crises.

In her talk Monday, Tanielian will address such questions as how those exposed to the pathogen received health information, how they perceived and responded to that advice and what impact those directions had on their self-care, according to advance material circulated by Kennedy.

Last month, RAND published a study in the American Journal of Public Health analyzing the attitudes of workers directly affected by the crisis. Based on information obtained through focus groups conducted with both postal workers and Senate staffers, the researchers concluded that future communications on public health emergencies ought to closely involve people from the exposed population groups.

In particular, the authors concluded that well-known people in those communities should be enlisted to spread accurate information about the health risks related to the incident, including any “uncertainties.”

Senate staffers involved in the focus groups gave high marks to the Attending Physician’s office but said they ultimately lost confidence in public health officials because they delivered inconsistent and disorganized messages during the crisis.

Meanwhile, the March 14 Pentagon scare — when mailroom alarms at the Pentagon falsely indicated the presence of anthrax — has generated its own criticism.

At a House Government Reform subcommittee hearing on the incident this week, Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) accused federal and state officials of failing to establish a chain of command and swiftly communicate the risks to the public.

Experts at the meeting testified that Pentagon officials erred by distributing powerful prophylactic antibiotics to some 900 employees because they did not seek the consent of local public health officials, according to The Washington Post.

Monday’s event is part of RAND’s periodic Congressional briefings. The event will be held between noon and 1:30 p.m. in Room 2167 of the Rayburn House Office Building, according to RAND’s Web site.

RAND will provide another briefing for Hill staffers Monday, April 18, focusing on the challenges that military spouses face in finding work or pursuing an education.

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