Friday, December 26, 2014

Surprising role for the Post Office: protection against bioterrorism

For nearly a decade, a little-discussed, perhaps ingenious plan has been in the works for the Postal Service to deliver life-saving antibiotics to homes in the event of a bioterrorist attack. Will it survive the bean counters?

Surprising role for the Post Office: protection against bioterrorism

In 2009 President Obama signed an executive order to create a national postal model for distributing medical countermeasures in response to a bioterrorist attack. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)
In 2009 President Obama signed an executive order to create a national postal model for distributing medical countermeasures in response to a bioterrorist attack. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)

By Jonathan Purtle

For nearly a decade, a little-discussed, perhaps ingenious plan has been in the works for the Postal Service to deliver life-saving antibiotics to homes in the event of a bioterrorist attack.

Antibiotics (a.k.a. “medical countermeasures”) like ciprofloxacin and doxycycline can be taken to prevent and treat anthrax, which is considered the most likely bioterrorist threat. For the drugs to be effective, however, they must be taken within 48 hours of exposure. The Postal Service has the vehicles, manpower, and logistical knowhow to get the antibiotics to households swiftly. In addition to being efficient, delivering the pills door-to-door could negate the traffic, and potential chaos, that might occur if people had to go to central locations (or “points of dispensing”) to get them.

Funding to explore the feasibility of the postal model came out the Cities Readiness Initiative, a federally funded program established in 2004 to enhance American cities’ ability to effectively respond to a bioterrorist attack. In 2006-07, the postal model was tested through exercises in select cities across the country, including Philadelphia. The results were promising, and in 2009 President Obama signed an executive order to create a national postal model for distributing medical countermeasures in response to a bioterrorist attack. Earlier this month, public health officials in Minnesota conducted Operation Medicine Delivery, a full-scale exercise using about 300 mail carriers to delivery empty pill bottles to 37,000 households. Officials said the exercise went well.

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What about the health and safety of postal workers? Mail carrier participation in the postal model would be completely voluntary, and those who opt to participate would make their rounds with a police escort. Results from Minnesota suggest that a sizable portion of the postal workforce are ready and willing to be public health heroes; 385 carriers volunteered for the recent exercise, 80 percent more than would be needed for the region.

Under union urging, and to help ensure that postal employees would “deliver” in a real emergency, volunteers and their families would be provided with MedKits containing preventive antibiotics to keep in their homes — just in case.

The Postal Model works on paper and seems to work pretty well in practice. But these are tough times for the U.S. Postal Service, with the agency recently announcing that it will reduce its  workforce by 28,000 and close half its mail processing plants to stave off bankruptcy. While the rise of e-mail and private sector competition could mean bidding farewell to one of Benjamin Franklin’s more enduring inventions, it also has potential implications for the public’s health in the event of bioterrorist attack.

There has been no public mention of what the cuts could mean for the fate of the Postal Model.


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About this blog

What is public health — and why does it matter?

Through prevention, education, and intervention, public health practitioners - epidemiologists, health policy experts, municipal workers, environmental health scientists - work to keep us healthy.

It’s not always easy. Michael Yudell, Jonathan Purtle, and other contributors tell you why.

Michael Yudell, PhD, MPH Associate Professor, Drexel University School of Public Health
Jonathan Purtle, DrPH, MSc Assistant Professor, Drexel University School of Public Health
Janet Golden, PhD Professor of history, Rutgers University-Camden
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