Reacting to anthrax reports, UN health agency urges continued vigilance

Reacting to anthrax reports, UN health agency urges continued vigilance

Reacting to reports of deliberate anthrax infections in the United States and elsewhere, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) today urged continued public vigilance in response to the threat.

"Local and national public health systems are gearing up to respond to outbreaks of infectious disease, whether deliberate or naturally occurring," said WHO Director-General Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland. She said three lessons should be drawn from recent events. "First, public health systems have responded promptly to the suspicion of deliberate infections; second, these systems must continue to be vigilant, and third, an informed and responsible public is a critical part of the response."

The agency, which is monitoring the situation and providing updated guidance at regular intervals, today released new guidelines on responses to suspected anthrax infections.

Asked about reported anthrax infections in countries other than the US, WHO spokesman Ian Simpson told the UN News Service that there had been some rumours as well as a verified incident. "One case has been confirmed in Kenya, they've done a good job of finding it and they are well-equipped to handle it." He added that the disease had come "from a letter sent to a Kenyan that has been tested positive for anthrax."

Anthrax is completely curable following a correct and rapid diagnosis, according to WHO. Although anthrax is an extremely serious condition, its most dangerous form - inhalation or pulmonary anthrax - can only be caught by direct exposure to spores suspended in the air. Inhalation anthrax does not spread from person to person.

Explaining how citizens in all countries should respond to the deliberate use of anthrax, WHO's Executive Director for Communicable Diseases, Dr. David Heymann, said anyone who feels ill should seek medical advice. "Unless they have been directly exposed to anthrax spores, they cannot have anthrax and should not be concerned," he emphasized.

"Anyone who receives or sees a suspicious letter or package should report it to the police or other local authorities in the normal way," added Dr. Heymann. "Police and health authorities are equipped to test and react to any suspicious package and whatever it might contain."

WHO also emphasized that people should not attempt to use antibiotics to treat or protect themselves without first seeking medical advice. The agency warned that misuse could lead to harm or drug resistance.