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Stephanie Kane
Criminal Justice Department

Last modified: Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Public health is key in fighting bio-terrorism, IU professor says

Public health, not the military or law enforcement, needs to be the lead agency for combating any bio-terrorist attacks against the United States, according to Stephanie Kane, an Indiana University faculty member in cultural criminology.

"If an emergency occurs, we need a strong public health infrastructure, not someone out there with a gun," said Kane, an associate professor of criminal justice. She recently presented a paper on this subject at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology. Her research interests combine anthropology and criminal justice in the specialized field of cultural criminology.

"Putting Public Health at the Center of Homeland Defense: A Semiotic Analysis of Bio-terrorism" was the title of her presentation in which she argued that the military, law enforcement and public health need to work together, but that public health needs to be the lead agency.

"Our homeland security experts are developing a plan that follows the model used in combating drug wars, and this is inappropriate for dealing with the ramifications of bio-terrorism. It's not that we don't need law enforcement, but it should be following public health, not vice versa," she said.

"I believe that I am not alone in thinking that the drug war model is an obfuscation that will not help us cope with the global predicament in which we find ourselves. The prominence of its spokespeople may keep it in the news, and its funding stream is unlikely to be cut, but it is basically a sideshow in the discourse of terrorism," she wrote in her paper.

Kane showed how metaphorical oppositions organize our national approach to bio-terrorism. For instance, the difficulty of separating fact from fiction pervades discussion, and we tend to control the anxieties associated with fearful spectacles by producing oceans of routine information. She also warned that computer breakdowns or sabotage could delay release of vital information from public health sources in the event of a bio-terrorist attack.

Kane said a healthy population makes it easier to analyze potential harm from bio-terrorism and thus increase our national security. "People with healthy immune systems have a better chance of survival if exposed to a toxic biological agent because when a normally healthy person becomes ill, the symptoms are more easily interpreted and diagnosed. The key is having public health experts who can rapidly detect bio-terrorism. Medical personnel working in the hospital emergency rooms, clinics and laboratories may be the first to recognize when illness is a crime," Kane said.

However, she expressed concern because some state public health departments don't even have on staff an epidemiologist, a health professional who coordinates data on infection patterns. "This could certainly become a problem in the event of a bio-terrorist emergency," she said.

For more details, contact Kane at 812-855-0896 or