The government with the help of the physicians
should initiate an active public awareness campaign
By Syed M.
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.