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Racial Divide Seen in Fear Over Anthrax Strike

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

Volunteers conduct a 2009 New York City exercise on delivering medical countermeasures following an anthrax incident. Newly released survey findings indicate black and Hispanic residents of the United States are more likely than whites to believe they are at high risk of suffering significant harm in an anthrax attack (AP Photo/Yanina Manolova) Volunteers conduct a 2009 New York City exercise on delivering medical countermeasures following an anthrax incident. Newly released survey findings indicate black and Hispanic residents of the United States are more likely than whites to believe they are at high risk of suffering significant harm in an anthrax attack (AP Photo/Yanina Manolova)

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Racial and ethnic minorities in the United States are more likely than white residents to consider themselves at high risk of dying or suffering serious harm from the intentional release of anthrax, according to research survey results unveiled on Wednesday (see GSN, Feb. 9).

The findings highlight the need for targeted government communications over a potential strike involving the deadly agent, one researcher said on Wednesday at the 2012 Public Health Preparedness Summit.

Harvard University’s School of Public Health conducted a telephone poll in December 2010 and January 2011 that reached 1,852 U.S.-based respondents, including 282 who identified themselves as black and 261 as Hispanic.

While 41 percent of whites in the poll said they would be “very” concerned about dying or becoming seriously ill if anthrax cases were reported in their locality, the number rose to 55 percent for black respondents and 63 percent for Hispanics surveyed.

The greater incidence of fear reported by the two minority populations could be justified, said Gillian SteelFisher, a research scientist with the public health school.

“As we look … historically at public health efforts, minorities are often more impacted by public health emergencies than other communities,” SteelFisher said, citing the 2001 anthrax mailings and other cases through history. “They may really be at greater risk, and you may be seeing that in terms of people’s perception.”

A review of past public health crises shows that minority populations “are more likely to be affected, less likely to receive treatment, and more likely to have treatment that is less likely to be effective,” she said.

The anthrax attacks highlighted disparities in “approach and outreach” between congressional staffers and U.S. Postal Service employees, a group in which racial and ethnic minorities are more highly represented, the expert later said.

Previous research has indicated there was a significant amount of mistrust as postal workers decided whether to undergo the extended antibiotic regimen offered following potential exposure to letters carrying the anthrax spores. Some black employees saw a historical connection to the Tuskegee study, in which hundreds of black men suffering from syphilis were studied for decades beginning in 1932 rather than treated.

Unequal access to treatment also emerged as a public concern at the height of the H1N1 flu threat, when a number of financially capable employers could offer workers exclusive access to the vaccine at a time when it was available in limited quantities, SteelFisher noted.

White respondents to the poll were slightly more likely than their black and Hispanic counterparts to believe that antibiotic treatments for anthrax infection would be safe, the researchers found. However, the discrepancy grew regarding whether the treatment would be “very” safe – 36 percent of white respondents agreed it would, compared to 25 percent of blacks and 23 percent of Hispanics in the survey.

However, the findings indicated black respondents were more confident than whites in the ability of the federal government to distribute antibiotics to state and local entities, and then for those agencies to deliver the treatments to the public, SteelFisher said. She noted the survey took place nearly two years into President Obama’s term.

“We had never really seen this before,” the researcher said of the divergence. “Having people in leadership positions may actually really make a difference.”

Roughly 90 percent of all respondents said they were willing to pick up antibiotic treatments from a distribution point within two days of verified anthrax infections. Ninety-four percent of black adults in the survey said they were very or somewhat prepared to do so, compared to 90 percent of Hispanics polled and 89 percent of whites.

Black and Hispanic interviewees who ruled out visiting a dispensing site voiced greater concern than whites in the poll over potential side effects of treatments, as well as the possibility of contracting anthrax from buildings, public transportation or other people. In addition, they were more likely to voice fear of possible shortfalls in treatment quantities, and they more frequently expressed an expectation that they could obtain treatments from physicians or other sources.

“It’s really important to think about targeted outreach” to address such concerns, SteelFisher said, adding such communication could focus on “defining ‘inhalation anthrax, talking about contagiousness [and] making sure people understand what pill they’re taking.”

The Harvard study received funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the independent National Public Health Information Coalition.

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