Officials Foot-drag on Biological Threats

Not even rudimentary advice has been issued for the public

The authorities responsible for handling bioterrorist threats in Israel are lagging behind in tackling the issue. They appear confused, and when they do offer solutions, many are inadequate.

This is despite the fact that 10 days have passed since the outbreak of anthrax in the United States, and that Israel has been well aware of the threat from biological and chemical warfare for years - and has even foiled some bioterrorist attempts.

Up to last night the Health Ministry, police or Home Front Command had not published even the most rudimentary advice for the public on how to act should one get an envelope containing a suspicious substance - anthrax, for example. Only two days ago did the ministry send instructions to doctors and medical facilities on how to diagnose the disease and how to report it.

Over the past two days, ministry officials have met with Environment Ministry staff, military personnel and police in order to draw up instructions for the public. But the director-general of the health ministry, Dr Boaz Lev, did not see fit to return from a conference he is attending in New York. Lev is responsible for coordinating the medical aspects of a biological or chemical attack.

According to the instructions that have been drawn up but not yet published officially, anyone finding a suspicious envelope must close it, cover it, wash their hands and change their clothes. The used clothing must be wrapped in a plastic bag. Following that, they must inform the police who are responsible for taking the material to the Biological Institute in Nes Tziona.

The police are responsible for taking charge of suspicious envelopes when there is no war. They have dealt with more than 60 such envelopes in the past three days but only a few were sent for examination. It transpires that police sappers, like health ministry officials, do not have protective gear for chemical or biological materials and they do not have the know-how to deal with them. According to one report, a sapper who went to examine a suspicious envelope in Netanya first threw it into a pit meant for suspicious objects.

The ministry has recommended that sappers use gloves and surgeons' masks. According to a senior health ministry official, however, this is insufficient and they should use gas masks. Dr Yehuda Baruch, a senior ministry official, said that the equipment recommended for sappers would considerably reduce the risk of anthrax but not prevent it completely.

The police say they are ready to handle suspicious envelopes and that the sappers are protected according to guidelines from the Biological Institute.

Yesterday it was decided that one of seven teams from the Environment Ministry that normally handles spills or accidents involving dangerous materials will deal with the envelopes. These teams have protective gear, similar to the suits worn by FBI agents in the U.S., which are supposed to provide complete protection.

Even before an official decision was taken about this yesterday, the teams were called to the police to deal with four suspicious envelopes. They still need to agree to do this work, however, and to receive special training.

The teams have experience with chemical substances and former ministry officials and Home Front officers are skeptical as to whether they can deal with biological materials and to answer urgent calls. The Home Front has hermetically sealed protective suits but in order to use them reserve forces will have to be called up.

It is also not clear whether one has to go to a hospital emergency ward after handling a substance suspected to be anthrax. According to Dr Leon Pauls, deputy head of Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot, a person should go if he has any unusual feelings or symptoms as a result of coming into contact with a suspicious substance. The emergency ward staff will give him a check-up and examine a sample from his nostrils if necessary. He said that, unlike chemical substances which take only a few minutes to have an effect, biological substances take hours or days.

A resident of Ashdod who received a parcel from Holland on Sunday, and began to feel itchy after finding a white powder inside, went to Kaplan Hospital. Pauls said that a physical examination revealed no signs of anthrax and he was sent home. A preliminary examination of the contents of the parcel was also negative.

On September 4, a week before the U.S. terror attacks, the IDF's medical corps held a seminar on biological and chemical warfare. Various scenarios were presented but the dispatch of poisonous envelopes was not discussed.

The functioning of the country's hospitals in the case of a bioterrorist attack was discussed and lessons were learned from the attack in Tokyo's underground in 1995 in which 5,000 people were affected by nerve gas and 12 people died.

Dr Yisrael Hendler of the IDF's medical corps said then that the question was not if there would be a large scale toxological event in Israel, but when.