In his article "Dangerous Fictions About Bioterrorism" [op-ed, Nov. 8], Dr. Donald Henderson points out what he calls "several inaccuracies" in the "Nightline" series "Biowar."
Henderson wrote that "Nightline" incorrectly portrayed medical and public health intervention as ineffectual and that health professionals were not much in evidence on "Nightline." In fact, we devoted much of our series to the efforts of doctors to treat the victims, identify the disease and respond to the crisis.
We interviewed several emergency room doctors; Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala appeared on the final broadcast; and one of the four panelists on the series, appearing each night, was Dr. Dennis Perrotta, the Texas State epidemiologist.
Henderson was initially approached by "Nightline" to fill that slot on the panel, but we ultimately decided to choose a public health official who would actually be involved in responding to such a crisis, if it occurred.
Henderson further states that "Nightline" reported that antibiotics are of little value in treating anthrax. We said no such thing. In fact, we repeatedly emphasized the current medical teachings that antibiotics are the only way to treat anthrax. No disagreement exists in the medical community on that fact. But current medical practice also says that antibiotics will not help a patient who is already symptomatic. Thus, doctors face a truly horrible decision, deciding whom to treat with a limited supply of antibiotics.
Henderson implied that there would be plenty of antibiotics to go around. In a large-scale attack, that definitely would not be the case and represents a truly dangerous fiction on his part. Henderson's article goes on to say that "Nightline" suggested people bringing in vital supplies would need protective suits even though anthrax is not contagious from person to person. He seems to have missed the next line in the broadcast, which says such suits were medically unnecessary but psychologically vital to reassure those who might not have been paying attention to news reports.
Most important, Henderson points to the Sverdlovsk tragedy as proving that anthrax has a much longer incubation period, more than a month, rather than the two to three days that "Nightline" reported, based on advice from doctors and biologists, both civilian and military. Henderson's conclusion on the lessons of Sverdlovsk are truly controversial, glossing over issues of dosage, release in an enclosed space vs. the open air and the possibility of subsequent exposures over time. His conclusion that there would be plenty of time to react to an anthrax attack and save many lives is misleading and represents the most dangerous of fictions.
--Tom Bettag, Ted Koppel and Leroy Sievers
The writers are, respectively,
"Nightline's" executive producer;
anchor and managing editor;
and senior field producer.