Bernard: Health, security officials don't know how to work together

Collaboration has improved since the 1990s though, he says
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Health and security officials don't know how to make themselves mutually intelligible, yet their partnership is essential for biological threats, said Kenneth Bernard, a former assistant surgeon general, on Dec. 3.

Bernard, who has also held senior positions in biodefense and public health in the White House and the World Health Organization, spoke at a symposium on the first 20 years of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program in Washington, D.C.

"Health people will say something like, 'Well did you know that smallpox killed 300 million people in the last century, more than all the wars combined?' Okay, that's great. So what?" he said. "Health people need to start understanding the mindset of people who have to deal with real security right now."

For their part, security officials can't cede responsibility for biodefense to public health officials, Bernard added. At the World Health Organization's 2011 assembly, where WHO member state delegations discussed smallpox stocks, only Iran sent a security official as its negotiator. Everyone else was a health official, Bernard said.

Those in the national security realm shouldn't assume someone at the Health and Human Services Department will take care of security issues, he said.

Meanwhile, he praised the Cooperative Threat Reduction program for evolving to take on biological and other threats. CTR was originally created to help the former Soviet Union reduce its nuclear arsenal after the Cold War.

Its breadth now is a far cry from Bernard's experiences as a special adviser for health and security on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.

When he settled into his office at the White House, he said, he waited for people to come meet with him, but "the only people who showed up were a couple of Marines who'd been running that morning and had sprained their ankles."

"Things have really changed," he said.

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