. .






 Anthrax in Pakistan



Anthrax in Pakistan

The government with the help of the physicians should initiate an active public awareness campaign

By Syed M. Aslam
Nov 12 - 18, 2001

In a world gone loco Anthrax scares have been popping up in cities after cities and countries after countries posing frightening concerns about the public and personal health. Letters have become a tool of delivering the anthrax bacteria instead of the essential tool of communications in the pre-September, 11 era.

It's rather useless to name the places the scare of genetically engineered weapons-grade bacteria have surfaced barring that anthrax has become one of the most recognized name in the world and number of confirmed deaths in the US. Anthrax-laced letters are found in many parts of the world causing a frenzy to the chagrin, and helplessness, of concerned authorities.

Pakistan, like many other countries, also has its share of anthrax attacks, many of which were downplayed by the officials as scares. A foreign bank, a foreign computer company, US consulate in Lahore, an office of National Accountability Bureau and one of the largest newspaper group have reportedly been targeted thus far. The last sealed off and disinfected its newsroom and put some eighty staff on antibiotics.

The scares are no more treated as mere hoaxes, particularly as the Minister of Science and Technology has said that the country has two confirmed anthrax cases. Three letters delivered in Karachi, country's only seaport city and financial and industrial hub, were reportedly tested positive for anthrax spores at one of the city's most respected private hospital. The letter delivered to the US consulate in Lahore also tested positive.

Highly placed sources in the postal department who asked PAGE not to mention their names downplayed the anthrax attacks in Karachi saying that 'it poses no potential threat.' Nevertheless, postal workers at Karachi's main international mail sorting office are provided with low-tech gloves and masks.

Volume of mail

Sources told PAGE that some 200,000 pieces of mail everyday letters and parcels, including over 70,000 periodicals arrive in Karachi everyday. Two per cent of all the postal delivery arriving in Karachi is international mail. There are three mail sorting facilities in Karachi the International Mail Office located on Shahrah-e-Faisal, Karachi GPO on I.I. Chundrigar Road and Express Mail Exchange at Nursery.

The international mail is sorted at the three facilities mentioned above where some 250 postal workers sort the mail. Sources told PAGE that they have been concerned only about the foreign post as there have been no problems with the local mail. That explains the reason why only the workers sorting the foreign incoming mails have been provided the least minimum protective gear to carry out their duties.

As reported last week by PAGE, medical professionals say that third-world countries lack the technology and the resources to manufacture genetically developed weapons-grade anthrax. In short this means, that only the incoming international mail can be laced with anthrax bacteria which is just not available within the country. That also explains the reason why postal staff at the District Mail Offices in Karachi dealing with local mail are not provided with gloves and mask like their colleagues in the three international mail sorting facilities.

However, the confirmed anthrax cases justify the need to be extra vigilant and cautious at the sorting, delivery, receiving and opening stages of the mail particularly the international mail. The threat should not be downplayed and it would be advisable not to underestimate the intelligence of the people to let them know about the details of the hoaxes as well as the cases which are confirmed. Keeping people in the dark would only result in spreading rumour-tainted grapevine to turn baseless stories into truths to undermine all efforts to boost public trust and confidence.

Needless to say, while anthrax in its non-contagious natural form has been around for hundreds of years wherever there is cattle, it simply does not mean that humans are immune to the engineered bacteria delivered in envelopes, an argument promoted by a segment of local fraternity of physicians. Under-estimating the potential threat as evident from the two cases confirmed in the country by the highest level of the government would do more harm than good to the public concerns.

The fact that the Third-World countries neither has the technology nor the resources to manufacture the weapons-grade is just not enough to offer any reassurance to the people as tens of thousands pieces of international mail pours into the country everyday. Today, postal workers have become a potential frontline target of a bacteria which seem to have left no nation untouched and can be deliver in an envelope to the intended or an unintended victim.

Common people are not concerned about facts such as that anthrax is deadly only if over 8,000 spores are inhaled, cells produced by the bacteria. They are also not concerned that on an average just about 20-30 per cent of the people exposed to the bacteria are not lethal. They are more concerned about assurances emanating from the top levels of the government and details about the anthrax cases, hoaxes or otherwise, to calm their nerves.

It is advisable that the government with the help of the physicians should initiate an active public awareness campaign to educate the people about the anthrax bacteria. It should also tell the people that a range of anti-anthrax medicines Amoxicillin, Doxycycline, Ciprosloxacine, Ofloxacin, Levofloxacin and Penicillin G- are easily available in the market at affordable price.