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,"
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
Copyright 1999© Info