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9/11: Fall and Rise
Dung Hoang

9/11: Fall and Rise (continued)

This Is Now

In February of this year, at the age of 52, Geyh died of cancer. It’s impossible to connect her cancer to her work at the site; as Burke points out, “One-fourth of us will die of cancer.” At her memorial, two Teamsters sang her praises; her research may assist with the diagnoses of future work-related respiratory illnesses. “It’s the saddest thing that you can’t talk to Alison,” says Herbstman. “She provided a huge service to the labor unions and to research.”

So what has been learned since 2001? Is public health better prepared now to cope with emergencies and disasters in the wake of 9/11? Some public health advocates say great strides have been made in some areas—but they note there is still much to be done.

Nationwide and locally, over several years, Jonathan Links, PhD ’83, an EHS professor, conducted surveys that explored the willingness of public health officials to respond in emergencies, such as natural disasters or outbreaks.

“There’s been a profound cultural shift. It took seven or eight years, but now public health professionals think of themselves as first responders… Public health has gone from 9-to-5 to 24/7.” —Jon Links

“[In] those first studies in Maryland [in 2005], about half of the workers were not willing to respond… However, one of the main factors driving that unwillingness is a perception that their role in their health department’s response isn’t important, and they are wrong about that! The person who answers the telephone is profoundly important in an emergency.” Subsequent training by Links and colleagues has helped to get public health workers to think of themselves as first responders.

Burke, who is director of the Johns Hopkins Risk Sciences and Public Policy Institute, has gone on to create a preparedness curriculum. And there is now a doctoral track in risk assessment. Links developed the School’s pandemic flu plan and subsequently worked with the Johns Hopkins Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response (CEPAR), of which he is now deputy director. He also directs the School’s CDC-funded Public Health Preparedness Programs, which are doing a combination of research (including work on first-responder attitudes about willingness to report for duty, and how to enhance willingness), training and technical assistance to local health departments.

Ten years later, the health impact of 9/11 is still being measured. A paper co-authored by Geyh in 2007 argues, “Still, there are some things we will never know for certain; indeed, we do not even know with any certainty the size of the exposed population.” A further wrinkle is the problem of association. Adds Herbstman: “We can measure biomarkers to see who had highest exposures to what, but we can’t say with confidence the exposures are due to WTC.”

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