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World

Getting Ready for Biological Warfare

As the possibility of war with Iraq looms, Germany is implementing plans to protect the population from biological weapon attacks. But some experts say it’s not doing enough.

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The possibility of biological weapon attacks have authorities scrambling for defense plans

Germany’s secret service is warning that the possibility of terrorist attacks on German soil is higher than ever. Interior Minister Otto Schily has asked citizens to be on general alert, especially as tensions between Iraq and United Nations remain high. Security experts say likely terrorist targets are highly symbolic structures such as the twin Deutsche Bank skyscrapers in Frankfurt or even Cologne’s famous cathedral.

However, one target that worries analysts even more is an attack on the general population in the form of a biological weapon, such as cholera, anthrax or small pox.

Danger of deadly virus

According to experts, an attack with the small pox virus is especially dangerous because it cannot be fought with antibiotics and the disease is known to kill 30 percent of its victims. Since obligatory small pox vaccination in Germany was abolished in 1976, adults’ resistance today to the virus is weak, and younger people have no protection at all.

The World Health Organization declared small pox as officially eradicated in 1980, but small samples have been kept in both the United States and Russia. It is unclear whether portions of these samples or other strains could have been obtained by Saddam Hussein or terrorists organizations. However, officials in the US believe this could be highly possible, and with the possiblity of a war on Iraq looming on the horizon, they have begun vaccinating military personnel and emergency workers.

Germany has now started its own preparations for a possible small pox attack.

Increasing Vaccine Stocks

Ulla Schmidt, Germany’s health minister, recently announced that the government had begun procuring large stocks of the small pox vaccine and will continue to increase supplies on hand.

Currently the government has enough stocks for 35 million small pox vaccinations and plans on acquiring enough to vaccinate 80 million people. Still, the government has so far ruled out implementing a general vaccination of the population for now. Health experts say one to two people in a million die from small pox vaccination and another 1,000 have serious side effects.

“The risk is too high,” Schmidt told reporters.

The vaccines are being kept in several secret locations, according to a report in the news magazine Focus, and the total cost for vaccine procurement and storage amounts to some 380 million euro ($390 million) . Who will eventually cover these costs, whether the federal government or the individual states, who normally have jurisdiction over civil defense matters, is still a question of contention.

Moving Too Slowly?

Critics of the government’s preparation plans maintain that Berlin is not moving fast enough to counter a threat that could result in hundreds of thousands of lost lives if Germany were to be the target of a large-scale attack.

While the government argues about financing, precious time is being lost, according to Günter Beckstein, Interior Minister of Bavaria. He and several counterparts from other states complain that the federal government still has no comprehensive reaction plan to a biological attack. Bavaria is the only state to have set up vaccine disbursement centers and have doctors standing ready to carry out large-scale vaccinations.

“What I find reprehensible is that these empty words [from the government] aren’t going to protect us,” he said. “It’s necessary that we see action. So far, that hasn’t been the case.”

Others are echoing the sentiment. Oliver Thränert from the German Institute for International Politics and Security said Germany is unprepared in the area of training and equipment, as well as in medical care, should a large number of people be affected.

Getting Ready

Despite the accusations, Berlin has taken some steps to beef up the country's readiness. The states are scheduled to receive 650 civil defense vehicles, some of which can detect radioactive, biological or chemical materials. Just after the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, a satellite warning system was put into place and a new online emergency information system is in operation.

“Things are starting to move,” said Manfred Friedrich, civil protection expert with the German Firefighters Association. His group is stepping up their training programs for firefighters to include defense against biological weapons. But he criticized what he said is a lack of coordination among authorities and agencies.

Federal Interior Minister Schily hopes to change that with the opening of a new “Federal Office for Civil Defense” which would bring together civil protection efforts on both the local and national level and coordinate national emergency response plans. However, there are no details as to when or where this office will be established.

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