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
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
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.