International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean   

Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
Issue: 13/2006- 12/2006 - 11/2005 - 10/2005 - 9/2004 - 8/2003 - 7/2003 - 6/2002 - 5/2002 - 4/2001- 3/2001



Public Health Response to Biological and Chemical Weapons WHO Guidance SECOND EDITION

Developments since the first edition

Thirty years have gone by since the World Health Organization (WHO) published its 1970 Report entitled “Health Aspects of Chemical and Biological Weapons”(1) and there have been significant changes during this period.

On the negative side, there was a large-scale use of mustard and nerve gases in the Iran–Iraq War; the reported use of these agents by the Iraqi government against its own citizens –one of the most noticeable episodes occurred in Halabjah, in March 1988-; and the use of sarin on two different occasions (in 1994 and 1995) by the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult in public places in Japan, including the Tokyo subway. The cult also made plans – which, fortunately, were ineffective-, for the use of biological weapons. The dissemination of anthrax spores through the United States Postal Service in 2001, which killed five people, has increased fears of bio-terrorism.

On the positive side, both the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention came into force in 1975 and 1997, respectively, and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has started its work on supervising the destruction of stocks and factories of chemical weapons, including the ones located in the Russian Federation and the United States, and monitoring the world chemical industry to prevent any future misuse of these weapons. Therefore, the immense biological and chemical threats that existed during the Cold War for large population groups in Europe and Asia -when there were large active stocks of chemical weapons and active preparations for biological warfare at the continental level-, have been eliminated. These and other advances during this period, in both technical and political terms, led to a need for a review. This second edition is the result of said review.

The main part of the report consists of six chapters, supported by seven annexes that contain more detailed technical information.

Chapters 2 and 3 describe the way in which biological and chemical agents may endanger public health. Their main purpose is to identify what should be essential in any planning to avoid or at least mitigate the consequences of the deliberate release of such agents.

In Chapter 4, standard principles of risk management were used in order to summarize the steps that Member States may take to prepare themselves for the possibility that biological or chemical agents may be deliberately released, with the purpose of harming their population. The intention of this chapter is not to provide the detailed guidelines of an operational manual but a review of the components of preparedness, along with a guide to those sources of more detailed information.

Chapter 5 considers the part that both national and international law may play in preparedness planning, including its potential and pivotal role in mobilizing international assistance, while Chapter 6 identifies sources available for this assistance.

For further information, please contact:
Pan-American Health Organization
Pan-American Sanitary Office, Regional Office of
the World Health Organization