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Friday, 4 October, 2002, 10:02 GMT 11:02 UK
Doctors warn of bioterrorism risks
Anthrax
Doctors warn getting hold of anthrax is 'not that difficult'
Doctors are warning about the dangers of bioterror attacks.

At a meeting of the World Medical Association in Washington, US, they are warning that health officials need to be on their guard against such an attack - and say terrorists could get hold of biological weapons quite easily.

Professor Donald Henderson, senior advisor on bioterrorism to the US government, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "At the top of the list is smallpox, followed by anthrax, by plague, by botulinum toxin that produces paralysis.

"Getting hold of anthrax organisms is not all that difficult because there are such cases occurring amongst animals in many parts of the world every year.


Scientists know who's capable of doing this

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, British Medical Association
"Getting hold of smallpox would be much more difficult.

"But we know that there are many people who were formerly scientists in the Soviet Union who are now out of work and many of these people left their laboratories, and they can bring with them a great deal of sophistication to a dissident group or a state to produce these."

'Web of deterrence'

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, Head of Ethics and Science at the British Medical Association, said experts had estimated it could cost just $1m to buy the equipment needed to make weapons grade material.

She called for closer checks on scientific research.

"Scientists know who's capable of doing this.

"They should be watching who's got the equipment, who's got the machinery, who's doing something they're not publishing, they're not talking about.

"We need what people call a web of deterrence.

"We need every country to have a law that says anyone working on this is guilty of a serious criminal act and that they are liable, therefore, for very long periods in prison."

She warned a bioterrorism attack could claim more lives than last year's attacks on the United States."

"We know the hijackers on the 11 September were prepared to fly their planes into the towers and die.

"If instead they had infected themselves with something like smallpox and walked around a busy airport or station, the chances are they would have killed millions, not the thousands tragically killed on 11 September."

Detection

Doctors say that dealing with a bioterrorism attack would need the same systems as any other infectious disease - and early detection would be the key to minimising its impact.

Professor Brian Duerden, director of the Public Health Laboratory Service, which covers England and Wales, said like other major countries, the UK could be the target of a bioterrorism attack.

But he said: "What you have to have is systems in place to detect any such attempt at the earliest possible opportunity.

"And that needs the same activities that you have to have in place for any communicable diseases - whether that is the next flu epidemic major food poisoning outbreaks, or the legionella outbreaks we saw a few weeks ago."

He said plans to cope with bioterrorism attacks were in place before last autumn, but these were improved and made more publicly available.

Professor Duerden said he did not see the need for a "web of deterrence".

But he added: "What is important is to ensure that people coming for training in Western countries are of an appropriate background and that you're not risking taking people on who want to use the knowledge that they gain in this sort of way."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Andrew Hosken
"Harnassing bacteria and viruses for terror is perhaps the cheapest of all the available weapons of mass destruction"
Professor Brian Duerden, Public Health Lab. Service
"We as vulnerable and as much of a target as other major countries"
See also:

12 Dec 01 | Health
26 Sep 01 | Health
04 Oct 01 | Health
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