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Last Updated

10 Jan 2003

Source: Reuters, January 10, 2003

Aid Agencies Can Help Respond to Terror Attacks

By Patricia Reaney

LONDON (Reuters) - Aid agencies could play a vital role in responding to a biochemical attack but governments must first share their expertise of weapons of mass destruction, the head of a medical charity said on Friday.

With American and British troops preparing for war on Iraq and the discovery of small amounts of the deadly toxin ricin in a London flat, the threat of an attack with a biological or chemical agent looms larger than ever.

Geoff Prescott of the London-based medical charity Merlin said relief organizations should, but do not, have the capacity to deal with such disasters.

"This is a real issue of the 21st century and at the moment the only people who seem to be able to do anything about it are western militaries," he said in an interview.

But western military aren't necessarily going to be able to be deployed in all circumstances -- for example if an attack or accident happens in a politically sensitive area.

Merlin and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have completed a study of the potential humanitarian response to such disasters and have called for a meeting with British officials in the hope of improving capabilities to deal with a biochemical attack.

"Our goal is to establish an independent, neutral humanitarian capacity to respond to casualties of weapons of mass destruction anywhere in the world and to gain that we will need to get help -- in the first stage only -- from western governments," he said.


Whether a biological agent such an anthrax or the plague, the smallpox virus, deadly toxins, nerve gases or other weapons of mass destruction, expert knowledge of how to respond to their use lies almost solely with the military.

Prescott envisions an international taskforce of neutral aid agency workers who would have the expertise and skills to deal with such disasters anywhere in the world. "We need to sit down with them (officials) and start to collect the information and train in our own capacity to handle this. We are hoping for a meeting quite soon," he said.

Merlin has also contacted non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in other countries to improve the humanitarian response to a biochemical attack.

Prescott said the military will be able to provide basic information about what can happen, what should be done in an accident or attack, whether aid workers and other people should be vaccinated and whether it will work.

"All that basic information must be put together in a treatment-manual way," he said. "We need to get our treatment manuals, our protocols, our systems, up and running."

Aid agencies know how to deal with displaced people but will need information on decontamination, how to minimize transmission in a biological attack and how to keep vaccines cold in a disaster situation.

"We also need to identify people throughout the sector who are willing to work in this environment, who will be equipped and have the right skills," Prescott said.

He believes aid agencies or a taskforce could be a major player in dealing with humanitarian disaster resulting from a biochemical attack.

"Because we are neutral and independent from governments we will be able to go into places and give assistance, if we are suitably trained, where others can't," Prescott added.