Mass hysteria is seen as main threat from bioweapons

BMJ 2001; 323 doi: (Published 03 November 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:1023
  1. Andrew Moscrop
  1. London

    Biological weapons pose more of a psychosocial threat than a physical danger, a Royal College of Physicians seminar heard last week.

    Speakers suggested that biological weapons were “not very good” at causing death or destruction, but they warned of the dangers of public panic and loss of confidence in the authorities. The seminar on biological weapons was held “to try and get away from hype and the atmosphere of fear,” said Sir George Alberti, president of the college.

    Professor Simon Wessely of the Institute of Psychiatry urged caution in the handling of pos-sible biological weapons attacks. “Interventions have their own side effects,” he said, pointing out that the deployment of investigators in space suits may cause “mass panic.” Professor Wessely said it was more important “to be combating the psychological threat” of biological terrorism by providing the public with “sound, sensible information” that was “accurate and reassuring.” He suggested that biological weapons were weapons not of mass destruction but of mass hysteria. Nevertheless, people will learn to live with the threat of biological terrorism, he added. “When psychological weapons lose their novelty, they lose their primary potency, which is their capacity to cause fear,” he said.

    But the chief medical officer, Liam Donaldson, defended active interventions. “I would rather overreact at this stage,” he said. Professor Donaldson also reassured the seminar that Britain is ready to respond to biological attack. In the event of an attack with variola virus, for example, stocks of smallpox vaccine were at the ready. But he admitted it was not yet clear if there was enough vaccine.

    Several speakers highlighted the inadequacies of biological weapons. Professor Wessely said they are “not really very good weapons at all.” Biological weapons, he added, are inefficient, unpredictable, and more likely to harm their users than their intended targets. Dr Alastair Miller of the Worcester Acute Hospitals Trust said that anthrax was a particularly poor weapon because it could not be spread directly between people and the disease could be prevented by vaccination or treated with antibiotics.

    Healthcare staff would be the first to notice a covert biological attack, said Dr Nick Beeching from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. He called on doctors to be alert for any unusual increase in the incidence of gastric or respiratory symptoms and inform the public health authorities quickly if they suspected bioterrorist activity.

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