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Howard's End: Bioterrorism A Real Threat

While the Government now prepares to spend several million dollars tightening border controls following the British outbreak of foot and mouth disease, the threat of an attack from bioterrorists is as real today as an earthquake threat. John Howard writes.

In recent times, snakes, the varroa bee mite, the southern saltmarsh mosquito and South American red fire ants, have all accidentally arrived in New Zealand.

The reality is that with globalisation of trade the barriers have been lowered so much that it's inevitable that some day something nasty is bound to jump over.

But there is perhaps an even greater threat. Those who have studied the possibilities of biological or chemical attacks agree that attacks from bioterrorists - whether state-sponsored or by independent radicals - is no longer a matter of if, but when.

Indeed, "low-level" attacks have already occurred with the threat of this type of terrorism simply being a grim reality of the new millennium. The RCD rabbit-killing virus was deliberately introduced into New Zealand by disgruntled people. And in Japan in 1995, lethal nerve gas was released in a Tokyo subway by a Japanese cult, killing 12 and hospitalising 5,000.

The Government is moving to address the potential of attacks by computer hackers, but you don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand that unless you have a plan for bioterrorism attacks as well, it's the whole population who is at risk. But knowing the possibility that such attacks will occur is only the beginning.

In 1998, Richard Preston wrote a novel, The Cobra Event, about the release of a genetically engineered virus in New York City. Former president, Bill Clinton, was so taken by the novel that he called the nation's top bioterrorism experts together to brief him on US readiness to deal with such an attack.

What the president learned was not comforting and development of bioterrorism-response programs were moved on to the fast track.

In the US today, 27 federal agencies have signed on to the Federal Response Plan which outlines how the Government will assist state and local authorities in the event of biological and chemical attacks.

Emergency teams, as first responders, have been established and trained and include medical, fire, police and military personnel. Tens of thousands are involved.

Of course, there is a problem with the number of variables in biological and chemical agents that it is difficult to try and tell the general population exactly how to prepare.

The variables include identifying the biological or chemical agent - which can take weeks - determining who is at risk, identifying the exposed, establishing the time frame of the exposure and determining whether and how the released agent is contagious.

You wouldn't want people to panic and have them react to a pre-determined blueprint that doesn't fit every situation. So the simple first advice to the public must always be - stay away.

As a reasonable starting point, the Israeli's pioneered some procedures against biological and chemical attack during the Gulf War. They handed out plastic sheets and told people how to tape up their windows to keep outside air from circulating inside. The simple surgical mask can also provide some protection and bio suits are good. but they don't do much good if they are in the wardrobe at the time of release.

Our Government must focus on preventing any biological or chemical threat but it must also warn the public that this type of threat is as real today as any earthquake threat.

The H.G. Wells 1938 Halloween broadcast of The War of the World's, where tens of thousands of men, women and children were sent scurrying into the streets in panic, was imaginary. While destruction of the planet by men from Mars no longer makes the list of doomsday scenarios, new 'invaders' have muscled their way onto that list.

Today's perceived destroyer of populations and economies is invisible but not imaginary. That is the sad reality of living in the 21st Century.

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