Europe needs “urgent focus” on bioterrorism

BMJ 2001; 323 doi: (Published 10 November 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:1086
  1. Rory Watson
  1. Brussels

    Europe must improve its public health defences against possible biological terrorist attacks, the European Union's commissioner for health and consumer protection, David Byrne, has said. He has already launched an urgent review of current measures to withstand such attacks against animal and food production in Europe and wants the same done for human diseases.

    Although the European Union's troubles with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and swine fever have meant that the union has relatively strong defences for animal health and food, the region is far less prepared in the area of public health, traditionally the responsibility of national authorities. The result is that there are provisions for the storage and rapid distribution of vaccines of animal diseases, such as foot and mouth, but no similar system to combat human diseases.

    “There needs to be a very urgent focus in the coming weeks on key issues such as what drugs and vaccines are available to deal with the potentially most dangerous threats from bioterrorism,” Mr Byrne told EU agriculture ministers recently. He is also raising the issue with European health and internal security ministers and with civil defence authorities. He insists that his warnings are not meant to be alarmist but argues that it is necessary to exploit existing national expertise to develop a Europe-wide umbrella against threats that until recently were considered unreal.

    EU leaders have already endorsed Mr Byrne's message by calling on national and European authorities to prepare a programme for improved cooperation in this area.

    In the medium term Mr Byrne is canvassing support for a pan-European agency able to handle communicable diseases. Clearly impressed by a visit to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, with its annual budget of $4bn (£2.7bn), he is emphasising how relatively underdeveloped the European Union is in this area.

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