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Bioterror Alarm Bells

By Sean Henahan, Access Excellence

Baltimore, MD (2/26/99)- Biological weapons pose a growing threat around the world, a threat for which health and civil defense authorities are ill-prepared, say leading experts in the field.

"There are three kinds of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological. The biological weapons are most feared, but the country is least equipped to deal with them," says Dr. D.A. Henderson, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies and former dean of the Hopkins School of Public Health.

As the threat of nuclear holocaust has diminished, the possibility of biological war has increased. Biological weapons include natural and genetically engineered bacteria and viruses. These facts have not been lost on health and military authorities who are now struggling to put contingency plans in place in the event of some sort of bioterrorism. While most public agencies in the United States have based their assumptions on the idea that a biological attack could be handled like a chemical attack, "this is a serious misapprehension," emphasizes Henderson.

Henderson has just finished an evaluation of various scenarios for bioterrorist attacks, along with a summary of current U.S. policies for response. Biological weapons, in contrast to chemical weapons, are not likely to be dispersed and degraded by wind and the environment. Rather these weapons can cause widespread illness for weeks following an attack after their release, potentially at epidemic levels. For these reasons, Henderson believes emergency medicine personnel, infectious disease specialists and public health officials should be trained to deal with the potential for bioterror.

While the military establishment has invested considerable time and resources in studying responses to bioterror, little attention has been paid to those who would be the first to respond in the event of a domestic attack- so-called first responders. From the federal to the local community level, a full-time cadre of public health, infectious disease, laboratory, and emergency medicine specialists should be prepared to respond to potential disasters of this nature, says Henderson. This effort should be accompanied by a new commitment to research in this area by the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, as well as university and private sector scientists, he says.

Recent world events, including reports of a massive bioweapons industry in the former Soviet Union and of a smaller Iraqi program, along with indications of ongoing bioweapons development in numerous other countries, not to mention the activities of 'militia' type groups within the US, suggest U.S. cities should not take the threat lightly, he says.

"Just as in the 1980s the medical community rallied to educate policy makers about the dread reality of a nuclear winter, the same needs to be done for the remote -- but real -- threat biological weapons pose," says Henderson.

Anthrax and smallpox would be likely agents used in a biological attack. Therefore, it makes sense to improve readiness to respond to those organisms. This suggests a need for improved vaccines for smallpox and anthrax. Other recommendations include enhanced training for emergency room doctors and nurses to recognize symptoms caused by biological weapons; improved diagnostic techniques; and efforts to stockpile improved vaccines and treatments.

Dr. Henderson's study appears in the Feb. 26, 1999 issue of the journal Science. Talks from a Symposium on Bioterror by Henderson and other experts are also available in Real Player format

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