Countries Need To Plan Effectively for "Deliberate Infections" - WHO Leader Urges Health Ministers

Washington, September 24, 2001 (PAHO) - Countries need to strengthen their capacity to respond to the consequences of the use of biological or chemical agents as weapons, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director General of the World Health Organization said today.

"We must prepare for the possibility that people are deliberately harmed with biological or chemical agents," Dr Brundtland told a meeting of Health Ministers from the Western Hemisphere here. She said that any deliberate use of agents such as anthrax or smallpox should be contained by an effective public health response. Proper surveillance and a quick coordinated response are both vital.

Dr Brundtland said that WHO is ready to assist countries if they should experience attacks. "During the last week we have upgraded our procedures for helping countries respond to suspected incidents of deliberate infection," she said in her speech at the 43rd Directing Council of the Pan-American Health Organization. "Guidelines for containing the resulting disease outbreaks - whether caused by anthrax, haemorrhagic viruses, other pathogens, biological toxins or noxious chemicals - are available to the medical profession through the WHO web-site."

Any infectious agents or toxic chemical could in theory be engineered for deliberate use as a weapon. Experts in this field believe that smallpox, anthrax, botulism and plague are the pathogens most likely to be used.

However, most if not all outbreaks of infectious disease, whether natural or deliberate, would quickly be detected through the "Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network". This global system of 72 global and regional networks of laboratories, public health experts and internet-based information systems continually monitors reports and rumours of disease events around the world.

The global system is "backed by WHO, with expertise, pre-positioned resources and support from more than 250 laboratories," Dr Brundtland said. "It is linked to the International Health Regulations - the legally-binding instrument which governs the reporting of epidemic-prone diseases and the application of measures to prevent their spread. The system also has the capacity to work with countries - investigating dangerous pathogens and confirming case diagnoses."

WHO has regularly coordinated and supervised responses to disease outbreaks, such as a recent epidemic of Ebola in Uganda, an ongoing epidemic of yellow fever in Cote d'Ivoire, and outbreaks of cholera, plague and other infections in different parts of the world.

Dr Brundtland said the world has the capacity and the experience to control serious disease outbreaks, but stressed that national contingency plans, especially in countries where infectious disease outbreaks are rare, should be strengthened.

In her speech, Dr Brundtland also paid tribute to the health workers who work to save lives and assist survivors and relatives after terrorist attacks.

"We are proud of the thousands of doctors, paramedics, nurses and psychologists who came together over the past two weeks and are working ceaselessly to ease suffering and heal wounds - on the bodies of those injured, and inside the minds of many as they cope with the horror. These health workers face an enormous and daunting task. Yet their dedication and stamina is an inspiration to us all."

For more information, please contact: Daniel Epstein, Office of Public Information, (202) 974-3459, epsteind@paho.org