Bioterrorism: Empower health units and universities to be responsive
Cases of infectious diseases with enormous public health influence have been reported in different countries in West Africa. During clinical Ebola investigations in West African countries, the biomedical community raised concerns regarding the prospects of bioterrorism.
Experts have continually warned that a new age of “most devastating form of terror that is difficult to predict, and of which the underlying consequences can be extremely upsetting,” is emerging.
Concerns have specifically been raised regarding how microbe stocks and technology appear to have passed into the hands of extremists with the motivation and the skills to selectively deploy these biological stockpiles in acts of terrorism.
The situation of the biological warfare has been encouraged by the advances in aeronautical technologies that have made it easier for these weapons to be launched even through bomblets delivered by aircraft or spray tanks straddled on aircraft or tall buildings.
In most cases around the world, public health is an important tool for the containment of infectious diseases through investigation, detection and tracking of outbreaks, identification of etiologic agents and their modes of transmission and the creation of prevention and control strategies.
By so doing, they develop specific institutional measures needed to check the threat of biological warfare.
No act of biological aggressions has been documented or suspected to have occurred in Kenya. But being a strong strategic partner in the war against terror, Kenya has everything to worry about regarding the possibility of these attacks.
It is sensible for the country to focus on appropriate remedies that involve pursuing medical counter-measures that will improve public health in general, regardless of whether major biological attacks occur or not.
In societies like the US, public health is equipped with — and has access to — modernised electronic devices with the ability to capture the symptoms data during an illness outbreak and simultaneously transmit data for analysis for signals indicative of an outbreak requiring public health investigation and response, thus creating an infrastructure that is able to use existing health data in real-time to provide immediate analysis and feedback to those charged with investigations and follow-ups of potential outbreaks.
Kenya is one of the citadels of scientific innovations in Africa. The country can chisel this innovative zeal into the investments in public health initiatives aimed at being responsive to such threats.
Kenya can potentially tap into the vibrancy of her research institutions to be responsive to bioterrorism and to appropriately respond to re-emerging infectious diseases by encouraging relevant faculties to actively participate in public health research in areas such as development of the laboratory processes and procedures for the containment of biothreats, engaging in interdisciplinary research to develop new models of response to the realities of bioterrorism such as novel prophylactic strategies and or help in the designing of Multi-Lab Response, a network of both public health and university labs providing the infrastructure for the concerted response to a suspect outbreak.
Also, the development and implementation of the relevant legislations regarding select agents, biosecurity, and biosafety should primarily involve experts drawn from extreme public health sector and biomedical academia.
Bioterrorism is likely to remain rare or happen but there is a need to adopt a concerted effort to educate the public to be responsive to this form of terror before it becomes an arduous challenge to our public health system and society.
Mr Onyango is a Biochemistry student at Masinde Muliro University