Bioweapons Alerts May Cause
Lasting Psychological Harm
By Will Knight

Mounting fear over anthrax attacks and the potential for other biological and chemical weapons attacks could have a long-lasting psychological effect on many people, even if the incidents themselves remain sporadic, say medical researchers in the UK and US.

They warn that authorities in many countries could inadvertently worsen the situation by over-reacting and proposing countermeasures, such as chemical sensors on subway systems.

"It may be unwise to send in men in white suits for what are relatively low-risk situations," co-author Simon Wessely, of the Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College London, told New Scientist. "If there are terrorists behind these attacks, that is what they want."

The likelihood of causing extensive psychological damage by fitting underground sensors far outweighs the likelihood of the sensors saving lives, they say. To date, 50 people have tested positive for anthrax exposure, 46 in the US, but there have been thousands of hoaxes around the world.

Terror tactics

The psychological damage caused by heavy-handed reactions could eventually manifest itself in mistrust of government experts, says the team.

It could also lead to unwarranted increased media and public speculation over the long-term health effects of low-level exposure to chemical and biological agents. The authors say that similar uncertainty followed the use of chemical weapons on soldiers in the Gulf and the Balkans.

Wessely says that biological and chemical weapons are less effective than bombs and guns, but can inspire more fear and uncertainty: "Anthrax is a lousy weapon. But it is the hidden menace."

"Out of proportion"

Others agree that the terrorist attacks should not cause undue concern.

"Any serious scientist is going to say when you look at the figures it is out of proportion," says Leslie Carrick-Smith, an independent UK expert on the psychologist effects of disasters. "A few people have been affected and 50 million have become very anxious."

Wessely believes that the public must treat the threat of biological and chemical attack as minimal. "The solution is to remember that we can deal with it, unless we overreact, as they seem to be doing in America," he says.

Journal reference: British Medical Journal (vol 323, p 878) 10:09 19 October 01


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