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WHO warns on germ attack

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The World Health Organization is warning Western governments to be on the alert for attacks using chemical and biological weapons.

Countries need to strengthen their national contingency plans to respond to any attack, said Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director General of the World Health Organization.

"We must prepare for the possibility that people are deliberately harmed with biological or chemical agents," Brundtland told a meeting of Health Ministers from the Western Hemisphere in Washington on Monday.

The warning that extra planning is needed to combat germ or chemical warfare comes after suggestions that crop dusting aircraft could be used by terrorists.

Brundtland said that the deliberate spreading of agents such as anthrax, smallpox, botulism and plague should be contained by firm public health action.

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The WHO is aiming to ensure that countries not only have the latest information on what form any attacks might take, but are ready with counter measures.

Proper surveillance and a quick, coordinated response were both vital, Brundtland said. She stressed that the WHO is ready to help countries if they suffer 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, though experts believe that smallpox, anthrax, botulism and plague are the pathogens most likely to be used.

The WHO says, 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," 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.

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

Britain is one country where this has happened following the attacks in New York and Washington.

Its national contingency plan -- code-named "Exercise Misty Scene" and drawn up after the sarin gas attack on Tokyo's subway in 1995 -- is being re-examined and upgraded.

A study by doctors at the Johns Hopkins school of public health in the United States published last year suggested that at least 10 nations had a biological weapons capacity but the use of planes as terrorist weapons has highlighted the possible threat to large numbers of civilians.

In her Washington address, 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."


• WHO: responding to the deliberate use of biological agents and chemicals as weapons

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