Why Africa must address bioterror concerns

The threat posed by biological weapons such as anthrax must be taken seriously by both African governments and African scientists, warned a meeting of international experts in Kampala in Uganda this month.

“Bio-weapons are an optimal way of causing mass casualties, are safe for the perpetrator to develop and transport across borders, and pose incomparable potential for mass panic,” said Swithin Munyantwali, executive director of the Kampala-based International Law Institute, one of the organisers of the event.

“No other weapon offers similar capabilities to spread itself,” the lawyer warned, adding that Africa is highly vulnerable to bioterrorism as it lacks the institutions, technology and expertise needed to detect potential threats.

Scientists are in a particularly tricky position: they need access to dangerous bacteria in order to fight them, but researchers simultaneously need to control access to disease-causing organisms to prevent bioterrorism.

Munyantwali told the Science and Development Network that the meeting was intended to kick-start greater cooperation on the threat of bio-weapons throughout East Africa. The region has experienced a number of terrorist incidents in recent years, including the bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1999 and a rocket attack on a hotel in Mombassa, Kenya, in 2002.

Potential bio-weapons include the anthrax bacterium, which the United States Department of Defence calls “the preferred biological warfare agent because it is highly lethal ...
deadlier than the deadliest chemical warfare agent”.

Outbreak in Uganda

Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park recently recovered from an outbreak of anthrax among wildlife there, which reportedly claimed at least a dozen lives after residents of nearby fishing villages ate infected hippopotamus meat, a local delicacy reputed to boost women’s fertility.

Justin Ecaat, a senior official at Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority, says such outbreaks show that African countries should be alert and have systems in place to monitor and control the movement of biological agents.

But a lack of technical capacity in Uganda apparently thwarted efforts to protect local communities and their livestock from the anthrax outbreak, according to local scientists. Veterinarians from Makerere University in Kampala mistakenly identified the outbreak as another disease, rinderpest.

Nicholas Kauta, commissioner for livestock health and entomology in Uganda’s ministry of agriculture, animal industry and fisheries, blamed the confusion on the lack of modern laboratory facilities in Uganda.

Samples collected by Ugandan pathologists and veterinary investigators were flown to Germany for identification.

“When we suspected anthrax, we sent samples to the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin and asked them to do genetic tests that confirmed our suspicions,” Kauta told SciDev.Net.

Efforts hindered

Kauta, who also chairs the national park’s anthrax-control taskforce, says poor disaster preparedness and a lack of technological capacity in relevant government departments hindered efforts to curb the bacterium’s spread into neighbouring communities and their 200 000 cattle.

“So far, there are no reports of domestic animals falling sick,” says Charles Katureebe, director of medical services for Bushenyi district, one of those affected. “But all warm-blooded animals close to the park are vulnerable to the disease if no deliberate effort is made to vaccinate them.”

According to Kauta, the Ugandan government ordered 80 000 doses of anti-anthrax vaccine. But he warned that government efforts to curb the threat do not match the ability of anthrax to infect all mammals rapidly, including human beings.

Anthrax is caused by a bacterium called Bacillus anthracis. When in humans and animals, it rapidly multiplies and kills its host. Outside of the body, anthrax develops spores that can persist in the environment for decades.

“A place infected with anthrax remains most dangerous, especially when it is in spore form,” says Kauta.

More than 200 hippopotamuses and an unknown number of buffaloes in the park have died from the infection. Tourist activities in the popular Kazinga channel have been restricted for fear that people could be exposed to the disease from the dead hippopotamuses lying along the shore.

Authorities had to bury dozens of hippopotamus carcasses in 3m-deep graves, while buffalo and warthog carcasses were burnt to ashes with diesel and firewood to ensure the anthrax bacterium was completely destroyed.

Reports of deaths

Uganda’s New Vision newspaper group’s local language papers Orumuri and Bukedde had earlier reported that 10 people had died from anthrax in the region close to the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“We have stepped up mass sensitisation of the community against eating any dead or sick animals, through radio and other gatherings,” says Katureebe.

Delegates at the conference called for strict measures to be formulated to guard against the misuse of biology, and warned that failure to address concerns over biological weapons could undermine efforts to develop and instil confidence in science.

“Confidence in modern science is giving way to a period of fear, doubt and uncertainty,” said Patrick Mazimhaka, deputy chairperson of the Ethiopia-based African Union commission.

“Addressing all of these concerns in harmony is mandatory for human security in Africa and throughout the world,” delegates said in a joint statement.

Scientists, lawyers, government officials and law enforcers attended the meeting, which was organised in partnership with the US-based International Consortium for Law and Strategic Security.—SciDev.Net

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