A Public Mess

The government's clumsy handling of anthrax exposed the weaknesses of a public-health system gone off the rails. Can it be set right?

The plague unfolded like one of those pre-9/11 bioterrorism war games. It started with a simple case or two that quickly grew to dozens, then hundreds. Local health officials, who had tracked the epidemic's course through Asia and Europe, sprang into action. Hospitals were set up in schools, banks and offices. Incoming ships were stopped 300 yds. offshore; vehicles were blockaded a mile outside of town. Health officials swept through the city, cleaning up streets, distributing medicine and imposing strict guidelines on food preparation. Eventually, the disease went into retreat, but not before 3,000 people had died.

This was no contemporary...

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