In the wake of the 11 September suicide attacks on the US World Trade Center and the Pentagon, anxiety has mounted over the possibility of a deliberate release of deadly germs as weapons of mass destruction. Such a bioterrorist attack with, say, smallpox virus or anthrax bacteria deployed over densely populated areas could kill hundreds of thousands of people. At this writing (in mid-October), nine cases of anthrax in the USA -- although of unknown origin -- have elevated bioterrorism from science fiction imaginings into a real-world threat. What's more, some experts fear, many countries are ill-equipped to respond to this threat.
To confront this situation, and in response to requests from several governments, WHO has rushed out a draft revised version of its 1970 technical guidelines on Health aspects of biological and chemical weapons some three months before its official release date. "We know that bioterrorism is of concern to our member countries and we are trying as best we can to help them address these concerns," says Dr David Heymann, who heads WHO's communicable disease activities.
The guidelines, which were co-authored by more than 60 bioweapons experts around the world, will provide a list of the 11 most likely biological warfare agents -- including smallpox, anthrax, botulinum toxin, plague and tularaemia -- as well as detailed descriptions of the pathogens and the symptoms they cause, estimates of casualty risks, and recommended public health responses to threats of bioterror attacks with these organisms.
The WHO guidelines, Heymann says, are not meant to "ring the alarm bell -- at WHO we don't know how high the risk [of a bioterror attack] really is. Risk assessment is not our job." Nonetheless, he adds, the guidelines are a call for action for governments to be ready for a possible biological or chemical attack. "The key is a strong public health care system that would detect a disease outbreak globally early on and effectively contain that outbreak," Heymann says.
WHO's contribution to that key is a "global outbreak …