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Tuesday, October 23, 2001

Philadelphia Inquirer: The nation is in dire need of an antidote for an infectious disease. The disease is panic, and the cure is accurate, consistent information, delivered by a figure of trust.
The daily onslaught of reports about bioterrorism delivered via the mails, of media and government institutions targeted for anthrax poisoning, is disturbing, no doubt. But signs indicate many citizens are stumbling toward an out-of-proportion panic.
The unsettling effect is compounded by the herky-jerky release of information, by conflicting accounts allowed to linger in the air. A dramatic example occurred Wednesday on Capitol Hill, where House leaders gave a far grimmer account of the anthrax release in Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office than the South Dakota Democrat himself gave.
Even as Sen. Daschle was vowing to keep the Senate open for business, Speaker Dennis Hastert and Minority Leader Dick Gephardt were shutting down the House and suggesting that anthrax spores had found their way into the Capitol's ventilation system.
Chief spokesman: Confusion and anxiety are certainly understandable in the wake of insidious attack, but a nervous nation needs its leaders to do better than that. The Bush administration would be wise to name one chief spokesman for the anthrax/bioterrorism scare, preferably someone with a firm grasp of the medical terminology and issues. The power of one person with an authoritative tone and calm mien should not be underestimated.
Various Bush administration officials, among them Attorney General John Ashcroft and Health and Human Services chief Tommy Thompson, have taken turns commenting on anthrax incidents, but the effect so far has been neither clarity nor consolation.
One candidate for point person might be Tom Ridge, the director of Homeland Security, but he has his hands full getting a feel for the myriad challenges of the new role. The obvious choice for questions about anthrax, smallpox or other bioterrorism threats would be the nation's head physician, the surgeon general.
But the incumbent, David Satcher, is a Clinton appointee whose nomination was vigorously opposed by then-Sen. Ashcroft, and whose sensible but frank report on sex education angered the Bush administration earlier this year.
If not Dr. Satcher, then an expert from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ought to be thrust to the forefront. Sen. Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican who is a physician, is another possible spokesman. The key point is: In circumstances such as these, Americans are far more likely to trust what they hear from a doctor than from a politician.
Can you blame them?