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Need for health contingency plan

By Syed M. Aslam
Oct 15 - 21, 2001

As the Afghans brave the relentless showers of bombs of mass destruction from aircraft carriers at safe distances thousands of miles away, the people of Pakistan, are exposed to a lot of environmental effects due primarily to use of the Pakistani airspace through which these 'precisely guided' missiles fly.

This puts the health of Pakistanis at a grave risk even if one rules out the possibility of any chemical and/or biological attack on the country which is matching its promise of support to the US.

People in the port city of Karachi witnessed an unusual fog, only it was more smoke than mist, soon after the first missiles were fired from the US aircraft carriers stationed in the Arabian Sea and elsewhere at about 9 pm local time. The government's assurance that the national airspace was not used did little to assuage the fears. Since the air strikes on Afghanistan, including those from the air craft carriers as well as bombers, have only increased in frequency as well as pay loads. So what kind of health hazards, if any, it poses for the people of Pakistan?

The President of Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), Dr Tipu Sultan, talking to PAGE expressed fears about all kinds of eventualities and disasters from the use of Pakistani airspace by the US, both from the missiles traveling overhead and use of airforce jets from one of many airfields that US is using. The usage of the national airspace poses many risks for the people a missile falling short of its intended target (as happened during the last US attack on Afghanistan a few years ago) can be disastrous. The safety of air travel within the country is also compromised, he added. All this makes the chances of mass casualty a grave possibility for unsuspecting masses particularly as the official machinery remains not only unprepared for it but also indifferent to it.

He said the relentless flight of missiles over the national air space in addition to the fuel which they burn, particularly when we are unsure about its very nature, poses a grave risk to the public health as they are spread far and wide through the air. The radiation can pollute the air to an uncomfortable extent resulting in diseases, a situation which becomes more grim as the country does not even spend one per cent of its budget of the health sector, he said.

Increase in number of patients

He said that since September 11, and particularly after the first US attacks on October 7 the local psychiatrists and psychologists have reported a substantial increase in number of out patients. This can be attributed to the growing anxiety, stress, uncertainty, hopelessness among the people in a country already reeling from low income, unemployment and non-existent public healthcare system.

Dr Tipu Sultan stressed the need for the announcing of health contingency plan by the government as the situation poses all kinds of eventualities for public health and lives. He said that a full-fledged health emergency should be declared in the country to mentally prepare the people for all possible health related problems and disasters on the one hand and the doctors and paramedics on the other. Calling the semi-emergency declared by the government insufficient he said that this should not be delayed any further in the best interest of the people. The rehearsals should be done to be better prepared to meet a challenge which was forced on us.

The public health is not being paid the attention it deserves in the prevalent situation and but it deserves the top priority, Dr Sultan said. We are facing real eventualities and putting the issue on side burner would not lessen it any less than what it is at present.

He said that anything is possible in the current situation including the use of chemical, biological and germ warfare by the US which is becoming more and more demanding by each passing day. We don't know exactly what kinds of weapons are being used by the US, about the fuels that they burn and the pay loads that they are carrying. We know little about the air, water or other environmental pollution that they can cause and much less about the impact they would have on the public health.

All this call for a medical emergency to better tackle any incidents of possible mass casualty. The preparedness is also required to take hold of the stock to be better prepared as prevention, as they say, is better than cure. Declaring a medical emergency and contingency plan as soon as possible need not be viewed as causing a public panic but rather a way to mentally prepare the people for a situation which is very real despite being uncomfortable, he said.