Thursday, June 26, 2008

A suspicious powder causes U.S. Embassy to be temporarily closed…

Powdered Terrorism, are we prepared?

At approximately 11:00 am on June 25, 2008, a suspicious powder was discovered at the U.S. Embassy in Colombo. The suspicious substance has been sent to a laboratory for analysis. Until the results are received and a determination is made that the substance does not pose health or safety risks, the Embassy will be closed to the public.

The US embassy has thrice been closed in the past after suspicious powder was detected but on each occasion it turned out to be a false alarm. We wish that this will be the case for the third time, how ever; this should be an eye opener to Sri Lanka to be prepared for biological or chemical terrorist activity.

Powdered Terrorism can basically be of two forms: Biological agents such as bacteria i.e. bio terrorism, and chemical agents such as Sarin i.e. Chemo or Toxic Terrorism.

What is Bioterrorism?
A bioterrorism attack is the deliberate release of viruses, bacteria, or other germs (agents) used to cause illness or death in people, animals, or plants. These agents are typically found in nature, but it is possible that they could be changed to increase their ability to cause disease, make them resistant to current medicines, or to increase their ability to be spread into the environment. Biological agents can be spread through the air, through water, or in food. Terrorists may use biological agents because they can be extremely difficult to detect and do not cause illness for several hours to several days. Some bioterrorism agents, like the smallpox virus, can be spread from person to person and some, like anthrax, can not.

Bioterrorism Agent Categories
Bioterrorism agents can be separated into three categories, depending on how easily they can be spread and the severity of illness or death they cause. Category A agents are considered the highest risk and Category C agents are those that are considered emerging threats for disease.

  • Category A
    These high-priority agents include organisms or toxins that pose the highest risk to the public and national security because:
    They can be easily spread or transmitted from person to person
    They result in high death rates and have the potential for major public health impact
    They might cause public panic and social disruption
    They require special action for public health preparedness.
    Examples of Category A :
    · Anthrax
    · Botulism
    · Pneumonic Plague
    · Smallpox
    · Tularemia
    · Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers (VHF).

    Category B
    These agents are the second highest priority because:
    They are moderately easy to spread
    They result in moderate illness rates and low death rates
    They require specific enhancements of laboratory capacity and enhanced disease monitoring.
    Examples of Category B: Brucellosis (Brucella species),
    · Epsilon toxin of Clostridium perfringens
    · Food safety threats (e.g., Salmonella species, Escherichia coli O157:H7, Shigella)
    · Glanders (Burkholderia mallei)
    · Melioidosis (Burkholderia pseudomallei)
    · Psittacosis (Chlamydia psittaci)
    · Q fever (Coxiella burnetii)
    · Ricin toxin from Ricinus communis (castor beans)
    · Staphylococcal enterotoxin B
    · Typhus fever (Rickettsia prowazekii)
    · Viral encephalitis (alphaviruses [e.g., Venezuelan equine encephalitis, eastern equine encephalitis, western equine encephalitis])
    · Water safety threats (e.g., Vibrio cholerae, Cryptosporidium parvum)

Category C

These third highest priority agents include emerging pathogens that could be engineered for mass spread in the future because:
They are easily available
They are easily produced and spread
They have potential for high morbidity and mortality rates and major health impact.

Examples of Category C:
· Emerging infectious diseases such as Nipah virus and hantavirus

Chemo Terrorism or Toxic Terrorism
There are four major categories of chemical agents that could be used as terrorism weapons to cause a health emergency. They are grouped according to their effect on the human body. These major categories of chemical agents follow:
1. Blister (e.g., mustards)
2. Blood (e.g., cyanides)
3. Choking (e.g., chlorine)
4. Nerve (e.g., sarin, VX agents)

As discussed in the last blog post on Bus Bombs, public awareness and vigilance is so important to prevent terrorism. Bioterrorism and chemo terrorism are no exception. So the general public needs to be educated on how to respond in such an incident.

The Ministry of Health and the Epidemiology Unit, in line with the Disaster management Centre will have an important role in preparing and responding to such incidents. An effective coordination mechanism needs to be established between health (curative and preventive) and non-health stakeholders ex: Disaster management Coordinators of Disaster Management Centre. Such preparedness plans need to be conveyed to the people in order to optimize their own preparedness and response.

The Terrorists have no ethics nor do they have respect for human life. Thus who can say that terrorists may not try Powdered Terrorism tomorrow? Are we prepared?

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