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Germany Prepares for a Bioterrorist Attack --------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Germany Prepares for a Bioterrorist Attack

Like the US and Britain, Germany is stockpiling vaccines against biological weapons, but the government is keeping mum about the specifics.

Since three terrorist suspects were arrested on November 9 in London, the media there have been reporting that the men were preparing to carry out a nerve gas attack on the city's subway system. British officials have tried to reassure the public that no gas was found and that it is safe to ride the "Tube."

Getting ready

So far, officials in Berlin have had no reason to worry about possible attacks on that city's underground system. The government, however, has already prepared for the eventuality. It started stockpiling vaccines to combat biological weapons just after September 11.

Over the past year Germany has bought 35 million doses of the smallpox vaccine. The government aims to collect enough of the vaccine to immunize the entire population in the event of a smallpox epidemic, according to a Health Ministry spokesperson.

Why the focus on smallpox? Western governments have pinpointed the disease because it seems like an ideal tool for a bioterrorist attack. Smallpox is highly contagious and, since its near eradication in 1980, scientists have not developed treatments against it.

Eradicated but not destroyed

Four years before the World Health Organization declared that smallpox had been eradicated, Germany stopped immunizing its citizens against the often fatal disease. But smallpox didn't just disappear stocks still exist for scientific use in labs in the US, Britain, Canada, Russia and possibly elsewhere.

A terrorist who got his hands on the virus could quickly create an epidemic by infecting himself and travelling from place to place.

Although reintroducing smallpox immunizations sounds like an obvious strategy, health officials are reluctant to do so.

"The risks are too high for prophylactic immunization," a spokesperson for the Health Ministry told DW-WORLD. The side-effects of the vaccination range from the unpleasant to the near fatal; one person in a million dies from the serum.

The "alarm plan"

With the help of officials, researchers and doctors, the government has also developed an alarm plan in case of an epidemic.

The Health Ministry refused to give details of the plan though: "For reasons of safety." According to a German current affairs magazine, however, doctors would be able to immunize the population within a matter of days, time enough to stop a smallpox epidemic.

But will the plan work? "Any large-scale relief operation begins with a chaotic phase," Albrecht Broemme, Berlin's fire chief, told Deutsche Welle. "We know that from every exercise and every real deployment. Our goal is to keep the duration of the chaos as short as possible." Deutsche Welle

-- Martin (, November 18, 2002

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