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Tuesday, 18 September, 2001, 23:19 GMT 00:19 UK
Doctors plan bioterror response
lab workers
Experts say they are prepared for bioterror attacks
A leading doctor says public health experts are well prepared to react to a germ warfare attack on the UK.

Plans have been in development within government departments for several years, and some of them will be outlined to NHS workers at the Public Health Laboratory Service annual scientific conference in Warwick on Wednesday.

The presentation on bioterrorism was planned long before last week's attack on the World Trade Center, and the conference's organisers decided it should still go ahead.

Dr Nigel Lightfoot, group director of the PHLS in the north, said people should not feel alarmed that the conference was looking at this issue.

Referring to the US bombings, he said: "The unthinkable has now happened."

But he added that plans for how the UK would react to a bioterrorist attack were in place, and said the risks to the country were very small.

Diseases which could be used by bioterrorists include anthrax, smallpox, yellow fever, forms of Ebola and botulism.

They could all cause disease and death.

Easy to spread

Small quantities can be deadly, and they can be delivered by air, possibly using some form of aerosol.

How a large city would react to a bioterrorism attack became a key concern for governments and health experts after the Aum Shinrikyo Sarin nerve gas attack on Tokyo's underground system in March 1995.

The attack killed 12, and left thousands sick.

The PHLS conference will look at Exercise Misty Scene, a Home Office and Department of Health Exercise that looks at what would happen if there was an anthrax attack on the UK.

Dr Lightfoot said: "It looks at the diagnosis and identification of people affected, and how public health laboratories would have to respond to the NHS and support them during that time."

Staff in the PHLS's 49 laboratories around the UK would provide surveillance information.

"These laboratories and specialist reference laboratories at the PHLS headquarters in North London would provide diagnostic experts for these unusual substances," said Dr Lightfoot.

"Clinical experts in these areas would be available who are able to give advice."

Antiobiotics to hand

If bioterrorists did release anthrax, the first thing to do would be to decide how many people had been exposed, said Dr Lightfoot.

"People would breathe it in and then become ill - the incubation period is about two days.

"Doctors would be giving antibiotics to those people to protect them from infection."

Dr Lightfoot said the UK had been working on contingency plans for some years, but had not publicised them because it was hoped not to attract attention to them.

He added other countries had publicised details of their plans, and had subsequently been subject to hoaxes.

See also:

25 Jul 01 | Americas
Q&A: Germ warfare
30 Sep 99 | Asia-Pacific
Sarin gas attacker to hang
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