Swiss prepare for biological attack

Last year's terror attacks and anthrax scare led to the creation of a "Bio Commission" in Switzerland Keystone

Fear of a biological or chemical attack has gathered momentum in the wake of last year's terrorist attacks in the United States and the anthrax mail scare.

This content was published on December 14, 2002 - 13:49

Switzerland, like the US and other European countries, has begun drawing up plans to deal with such an eventuality.

The Swiss authorities have set up a special commission to ensure there are enough vaccines available to protect the entire civilian population.

"We have to establish which vaccines are available in the country, because in the event of bioterrorism, it would not be possible to buy stocks on the international market," said commission member Robert Steffen, a professor who works on communicable diseases at Zurich University.

The commission's work has focused in particular on smallpox, usually cited by experts as the biggest bioterrorism threat.

Its first step has been to ensure that enough smallpox vaccine is available to immunise the entire Swiss population.

Smallpox vaccine

But despite having sufficient smallpox vaccine stocks, the Swiss authorities say they are not planning a mass immunisation programme.

"Today there is not a single case of smallpox on a worldwide scale," Steffen told swissinfo.

"If we were to submit the entire population to vaccination, we could expect several people to die because of it."

Steffen says the vaccine that is stored in Switzerland is an old one, and unfortunately it has many undesirable side effects.

Early warning

The Swiss authorities, like those in other countries, are counting on receiving early warnings to protect the population in the event of an attack.

Experts estimate it would take five days to immunise the entire country, but only if the medical corps is prepared.

"We will have to train doctors to deal with mass immunisations to carry out this programme," said Steffen.

Smallpox is not the only disease that could be used for bioterrorism or a biological attack.

Steffen confirms that the commission is preparing contingency plans for half a dozen other diseases.

Bioterrorism threat

He admits, though, that this doesn't rule out the use of other pathogens for biological warfare.

To deal with any potential surprises, the commission is counting on improved information. Foreign intelligence reports could provide crucial warnings.

"We need to get a better idea of what or who is threatening us," said Steffen.

But better intelligence is just one response to the threat of bioterrorism. Steffen believes proper medical preparation can also reduce the threat of an epidemic.

"We need to inform and train emergency room staff," he said. "That way, they can realise quickly they are dealing with unusual illnesses."

swissinfo, Vanessa Mock and Scott Capper

In brief

Switzerland is taking steps to protect civilians from the threat of a biological attack.
Authorities say there are enough vaccines available for the entire population.
A government commission is preparing contingency plans for half a dozen other diseases, such as smallpox.

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