February 23, 2003

‘There is now a distinct need for developing a comprehensive program of preparedness of possible bioterrorist attacks’ – Prof. Manfred Green.Understanding and fighting the global threat of bioterrorism will be the mission of a new center which will open its doors at Tel Aviv University in the spring.

The new center will conduct research on intentionally caused diseases, develop new vaccines to counter bioterror agents, and explore better ways of detecting and controlling disease as well as examining the psychological aspects of unconventional warfare.

Prof. Manfred Green, who initiated the project, currently heads Health Ministry’s Israel Center for Disease Control and is outgoing chairman of the department of epidemiology and preventive medicine at TAU’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine.

Green said that unfortunately, the center will remain relevant and necessary for many years to come. Even if the expected war with Iraq ends in the defeat of Saddam Hussein, bioterror’s threat worldwide will continue, and therefore, the subject is a wide-spectrum academic field of interest.

“We see the project as an academic center providing information, conducting research and holding seminars on the general study of bioterrorism and the use of biological weapons,” Green said. He plans to work closely and cooperatively with American counterparts, notably at Johns Hopkins University and Harvard University, where similar centers exist.

Biological agents used as weapons have long been considered to be a military option, said Green. In the past, a number of countries have engaged in the development of such weapons, but even after the signing of international treaties during the 1970s for prohibiting the production of biological weapons, several countries continued developing them.

There have been several incidents of bioterrorism in recent history. In 1984, members of a religious cult contaminated salad bars with salmonella in The Dalles, Oregon, with and 751 people developed severe gastroenteritis. In Japan, a terrorist group called Aum Shinrikyo made unsuccessful attempts to spread anthrax and botulism in the middle of the Tokyo subway in 1995. The most recent possibly bioterrorist event was the spread of anthrax spores in the United States through the mail immediately following the September 11 attacks in 1991.

According to Green, there is now a distinct need for developing a comprehensive program of preparedness of possible bioterrorist attacks. This program has many components, including prediction, surveillance, early detection, treatment and control of panic situations.

Such measures are neccessary, considering the fact that early detection of a bioterrorist-initiated epidemic will be extremely complicated. The first signs of most diseases caused by anthrax, plague and smallpox are non-specific and could easily be missed until typical cases occurred. Since most physicians not have had experience with any of these diseases, the diagnosis may be delayed and the opportunity to control the epidemic could be limited. If the disease is contagious, it could have spread widely before being detected; thus the epidemic could achieve widespread proportions before it was identified as resulting from bioterrorism.

The new center will develop databases on the types of organisms with bioweapon potential, as well as an infrastructure for the study of various aspects of bioterrorism, as a basis for prevention and control of bioterrorist acts.

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