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Readiness for health, bioterror emergencies eroding: report

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Readiness for bioterror and health emergencies could erode nationwide as cash-strapped governments face cuts in spending, a study reported on Tuesday.

Key programs that detect and respond to bioterrorism, new disease outbreaks and disasters are at risk because of federal and state budget cuts, according to the ninth annual report on health preparedness by the non-partisan Trust for America's Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Among the programs, 51 of the 72 cities in the Cities Readiness Initiative, which supports distribution and administration of vaccines and medicine during emergencies, could be dropped.

The 10 state labs with top-level chemical testing status could lose that designation, the report said. The downgrade would leave the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the only public health lab with full ability to test for chemical terrorism and accidents.

Twenty-four states are at risk of losing the support of career epidemiology field officers, who are CDC experts on responding to disease outbreaks and disasters.

The CDC's ability to mount an overall response to nuclear, radiologic and chemical threats as well as natural disasters is at risk because of potential budget cuts. All 50 states and the District of Columbia would lose the support CDC provides during these emergencies, the report said.

"We're seeing a decade's worth of progress eroding in front of our eyes," Jeff Levi, the Executive Director of TFAH, said in a statement.

Combined federal, state and local budget cuts mean public health departments can no longer support basic elements of preparedness, the report said.

The report in part urged assuring funding for public health readiness and improvement of biosurveillance. It also called for improved research, development and manufacturing of vaccines and medicines and improving the ability to care for an influx of patients in an emergency.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Greg McCune)

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