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Nowhere to hide - America is waking up to the threat of bioterrorism, but is there any real defence?

点击量:   时间:2017-04-10 06:02:07

By Nell Boyce Atlanta SHOCKED by the realisation that a determined bioterrorist could decimate the population of any metropolis, US cities are starting a series of drills to work out how they might respond. City officials in New York have just completed their first simulated anthrax attack. A bigger drill is planned for sometime during the next few weeks. What happens on these occasions will be used as a model for further simulations in up to 120 cities across the country. But experts in the containment of infectious disease still fear that current efforts are inadequate. “The bottom line is that we are ill-prepared to deal with a bioterrorist attack,” says Donald Henderson of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who led the successful international effort to eradicate smallpox. The simulations in New York are part of the Department of Defense’s Domestic Preparedness Program, established by a 1996 Act of Congress. Under this programme, the US Army’s Chemical and Biological Defense Command (CBDC) is helping city and state governments get ready for a terrorist onslaught. “We’re using New York City as a special city to work on biological incidents,” says Suzanne Fournier, a spokeswoman for the CBDC, based in Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. Baltimore, meanwhile, has been selected to host detailed simulations of chemical attacks. In many cities, the mayor and senior officials periodically meet to run through decisions they might need to take in the face of various disasters. But the New York and Baltimore simulations differ in that they also involve “field” exercises. “I can’t give a lot of specifics, but you actually have the response teams go out and act out what they would do,” says Fournier. “You also have a person playing a terrorist acting out what he would do.” Marcelle Layton of the New York City Department of Health says that the first simulation has taught officials that biological terrorism poses different problems from a chemical attack, and is potentially much more devastating (“All fall down”, New Scientist, 11 May 1996, p 32). “It really increased awareness among the various agencies, especially the nonmedical agencies,” Layton says. This is all very well, says Henderson, but a handful of trained response teams and a cadre of knowledgeable senior officials is not enough. At the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases in Atlanta last week, he noted that most doctors have never seen a case of plague or anthrax—so it could be days before they realise what they are dealing with. Henderson believes that national governments need to stockpile drugs and vaccines, develop and distribute rapid tests for agents used in bioweapons, and come up with effective ways to isolate infected people. When it comes to such practical countermeasures the US is hopelessly underprepared, says Henderson. No anthrax vaccine is available for civilian use, and even military supplies are of doubtful efficacy (This Week, 28 February, p 4). “A monumental task lies before us,” he says. The arrest last month in Las Vegas of two men who were allegedly planning an anthrax attack has underlined the vulnerability of major cities to bioterrorism. And there has already been one documented biological attack in the US—albeit using a less deadly organism—that has only recently been discussed publicly. In 1984, a religious cult put Salmonellabacteria in the salad bars of ten restaurants to incapacitate voters in The Dalles, Oregon, and influence a local election. More than 750 people became sick, but officials were slow to identify the outbreak as a deliberate act. “We really lost our innocence over this,