Federal and state efforts to protect the nation from terrorism have largely overlooked the health and safety needs of children, as well as the role of schools in providing shelter, a panel of prominent health experts has warned.
“National Advisory Committee on Children and Terrorism: Recommendations to the Secretary,” is available from the National Advisory Committee on Children and Terrorism. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, billions of dollars have been spent on homeland security and the U.S.- led war on terrorism.
Despite those expenditures, much more needs to be done to prepare health-care systems to treat children who could be affected by terrorism, according to a June report prepared for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services by the National Advisory Committee on Children and Terrorism. In the event of a biological, chemical, or radiological attack, “children would be among the most vulnerable population in our society,” the committee’s chairwoman, Dr. Angela Diaz, wrote in a June 12 letter to HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson.
“Protecting children and families,” she said, “should be at least as important as protecting bridges and buildings.”
Health and Human Services officials did not return phone calls seeking comment on the report, but a prepared statement from Secretary Thompson on June 16 suggested the department would use the committee’s recommendations.
“As throughout our emergency-preparedness efforts, we are much better ready today than we were two years ago, but we are still building and still improving, and there is still much to be done,” Mr. Thompson said. “The recommendations of the committee ... will be of great use to us, now and in the years ahead, as we continue to plan and commit our resources.”
The panel on children and terrorism was created by Congress last year as part of the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act to advise the government on the ability of health- care and emergency-response systems to treat younger victims of bioterrorism.
Working with staff members from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the committee found that as recently as 1997, data collected by the Federal Emergency Management Agency showed that no state disaster plan had pediatric components. Another study, the panel noted, showed that only 20 percent of hospitals had access to emergency-room pediatric physicians, and that most emergency responders had little training or experience treating children.
Spotlight on Schools
That “significant new pediatric and psychosocial initiatives are needed to address the needs of the nation’s children and families in light of the continued threat of terror events” was a main point of consensus for the committee, Dr. Diaz, a professor of pediatrics and community medicine at the New York City-based Mount Sinai School of Medicine wrote in her letter.
The committee advised federal planners to feature schools prominently in any terrorism-preparedness efforts, given the fact that more than one-fifth of the nation’s population can be found in its 119,000 public and private schools on any given weekday during the academic year.
Over the past year, the federal government has come under fire for failing to do more to include schools in its homeland-security plans and budgets. Many of the school-focused programs that have been unveiled by federal agencies such as the Department of Education were announced only recently and are aimed mainly at assisting in local planning and training, an approach that the committee suggested might not be adequate.
The committee’s report recommends that the federal government provide “regulatory requirements, oversight, and funding” to form effective links between state and local education agencies, schools, public- health agencies, and emergency responders.
Specifically, the committee advises that the government:
- Expand the CDC’s school health program by paying for a high-level staff position in each state education department and health department to coordinate policies and programs focused on the physical- and mental-health needs of schoolchildren, with a focus on protecting children in emergencies;
- Revise the federal terrorism-response plans to include schools, child-care centers, and other settings for children;
- Develop surveys and other measurements to determine schools’ ability to prepare for and respond to a range of terrorist incidents, including chemical and biological attacks; and
- Conduct and support new research that can improve the capacity of schools and child-care providers to help meet the physical- and mental-health needs of children before, during, and after a terrorism event or other mass trauma, and the ability of school employees and caregivers to balance the needs of their own children and families with those of the children in their care during the school day.