States must build capacity against biological, chemical attacks: UN agency
"We must prepare for the possibility that people are deliberately harmed with biological or chemical agents," Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland told a meeting of health ministers from the western hemisphere in Washington, D.C. on Monday. She said proper surveillance and a quick coordinated response were vital in order to contain any deliberate use of agents such as anthrax or smallpox before they infected large numbers of people.
Dr. Brundtland said WHO had stepped up its own ability to assist States in the event of attacks. "During the last week we have upgraded our procedures for helping countries respond to suspected incidents of deliberate infection," she told the 43rd Directing Council of the Pan-American Health Organization. "Guidelines for containing the resulting disease outbreaks - whether caused by anthrax, haemorrhagic viruses, other pathogens, biological toxins or noxious chemicals - are available to the medical profession through the WHO website."
Any infectious agents or toxic chemical could in theory be engineered for deliberate use as a weapon, according to WHO. Experts in this field believe that smallpox, anthrax, botulism and plague are the pathogens most likely to be used. However, most if not all outbreaks of infectious disease, whether natural or deliberate, would quickly be detected by the "Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network." This overarching network of 72 global and regional networks of laboratories, public health experts and Internet-based information systems monitors reports and rumours of disease events around the world.
"These networks are linked together as a global system, backed by WHO, with expertise, pre-positioned resources and support from more than 250 laboratories," the agency chief said. "The global network is linked to the International Health Regulations - the legally-binding instrument which governs the reporting of epidemic-prone diseases and the application of measures to prevent their spread. It also has the capacity to work with countries - investigating dangerous pathogens and confirming case diagnoses."
Dr. Brundtland said the world had the capacity and the experience to control serious disease outbreaks, but stressed that national capacity and contingency plans, especially in countries where infectious disease outbreaks are rare, should be strengthened.