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Friday, 26 October, 2001, 01:41 GMT 02:41 UK
Doctors told to be alert for bio-terror
Precautions are in place to deal with biological weapons
Doctors have been warned to be vigilant for cases of people who may have been infected by biological weapons.

Leading doctors from around the UK attended a seminar on the threat posed by biological terrorism at the Royal College of Physicians on Thursday evening.

We are not a weak and helpless nation, we have one of the strongest public health systems in the world

Professor Liam Donaldson
They were told by Dr Nick Beeching, a senior lecturer in Infectious Diseases at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, it was possible that people who had been infected with anthrax or other biological weapons could easily be overlooked.

He said GPs and hospital doctors should be looking out for things that could be confused with influenza, legionnaire's disease or meningitis, and related conditions.

"I believe that the risk is low, but one cannot say there is no risk. People have to be vigilant," Dr Beeching said.

"We need to watch out for unusual increases in anything, especially where there is a high level of mortality or clusters of disease.

"For instance, it could be superimposed on the winter flu outbreak.

"It is very important that local health workers notify the authorities promptly."

Professor Liam Donaldson
Professor Liam Donaldson said the UK was ready to deal with anthrax
Chief Medical Officer Professor Liam Donaldson told the meeting that the UK was as well prepared for the threat of biological weapons as it could be.

He said: "We are not a weak and helpless nation, we have one of the strongest public health systems in the world.

"It is important to remember that anthrax is a very treatable disease, and we feel we have got the plans in place to deal with it."

Category A agents

Anthrax is one of six biological weapons rated in the most dangerous category by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The others are:

  • botulinum toxin
  • smallpox
  • plague
  • tularaemia (a bacterial infection)
  • viral haemorrhagic fevers

Of these, potentially the most deadly is botulism. It is estimated that one gram could kill a million people.

However, the seminar heard that it does not make a practical biological weapon because it would only cause illness in very high concentrations.

Man is actually quite resistant to anthrax

Dr Robert Spencer
Dr Robert Spencer, a microbiologist and deputy director of the Public Health Laboratory in Bristol, told the meeting that humans were quite resistant to anthrax.

He cited the example of a leak from a military installation in Sverdlovsk, Russia, in 1979.

It was estimated that up to 1,000 people died after approximately one gram of anthrax, or about 80bn spores, were released and carried on the wind.

The infection killed all its victims if the incubation period was less than 28 days but if it was longer half survived.

At one stage anthrax infection was known as wool sorters disease because people who worked in woollen mills came into contact with spores that had been picked up by sheep.

But Dr Spencer said: "These people would go into woollen mills, probably inhale hundreds of spores a shift, and never fall ill."

The BBC's Nick Ravenscroft
"The Government is stressing there is no credible threat yet"
See also:

13 Oct 01 | Health
Doctors given anthrax advice
12 Oct 01 | Health
'Flaws' in bioterror defence
02 Oct 01 | Health
Anthrax antidote hope
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