Intended for healthcare professionals


Psychological implications of chemical and biological weapons

BMJ 2001; 323 doi: (Published 20 October 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:878

Long term social and psychological effects may be worse than acute ones

  1. Simon Wessely, professor (,
  2. Kenneth Craig Hyams, chief consultant, Occupational and Environmental Strategic Healthcare Group,
  3. Robert Bartholomew, researcher
  1. Department of Psychological Medicine, Guy's King's and St Thomas' School of Medicine and the Institute of Psychiatry, London, SE5 8AF
  2. Office of Public Health and Environmental Hazards, Department of Veterans Affairs, 810 Vermont Avenue NW, Washington DC 20420, USA
  3. Department of Sociology, James Cook University, Townsville 4811, Queensland, Australia

    The ostensible purpose of chemical and biological weapons is to endanger lives. Biological agents, however, are particularly ineffective as military weapons, while chemical weapons have only limited uses. This may be why armies have generally acquiesced in international treaties to contain these unpredictable weapons and feel capable of waging war without them. Instead, chemical and biological weapons are quintessentially weapons of terror. The now routine journalistic association between chemical and biological weapons and the word terror confirms that the purpose of these weapons is to wreak destruction via psychological means—by inducing fear, confusion, and uncertainty in everyday life. 1 2 These effects will take two forms, acute and long term. It is customary to expect largescale panic if such weapons are ever effectively deployed or thought to be deployed.

    We do not, however, know whether such panic would materialise. Media stories emerging from the United States …

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