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Security Beat 

Global Health Workers, Police Can’t Handle Bioterror 


Reported by Joe Pappalardo 

The world community is trying to prepare for a bioterrorism event, but planning for one is posing a major challenge to law enforcement and health professionals. Identifying a deliberate outbreak and catching those responsible will take organization and money that currently falls short, experts admitted.

While the United Nations has agencies which have the primary responsibility for monitoring and verifying a chemical or nuclear attack, there is no similar global organization to deal with a biological attack, said Ottorino Cosivi, head of the WHO’s preparedness for deliberate epidemics project.

Bioterrorism events would have a global impact, “do not respect national boundaries,” and require a worldwide response, Cosivi told the International Conference of Biosafety and Biorisks in March.

It is up to the World Health Organization to provide surveillance, assist nations’ efforts to strengthen their health systems to identify deliberate outbreaks and issue guidelines to keep technical information compatible during a crisis. Naturally occurring outbreaks, however, are not part of the WHO mandate, as specified by the World Health Assembly. That makes identifying the source of an outbreak important, in terms of law enforcement and medical response.

The WHO relies on the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) to identify and verify potential outbreaks. GPHIN continuously monitors more than 10,000 sources of information worldwide, chiefly from media accounts, looking for indications of an outbreak. Alerts are then filtered by analysts and disseminated to subscribers around the globe, who can then investigate. The system is responsible for the initial reporting of approximately half of all reported events of potential public health concern to the WHO.

To create a better net to catch emerging threats, the WHO’s Office for National Epidemic Preparedness and Response, headquartered in Lyon, France, is coordinating an effort to prepare medical laboratories for specific, likely bioterror agents.

The bad news is that there are no designated funds for this effort; it will be financed through grants and contributions from sources such as foundations and national budgets.

As far as catching those responsible, police across the globe are likewise unprepared for such investigations, according to Ronald Noble, secretary general of Interpol.

“There is no criminal threat with greater potential danger to all countries, regions and people in the world than the threat of bio-terrorism,” he said. “And there is no crime area where the police generally have as little training as they do as in preventing or responding to bio-terrorist attacks.”

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