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Egypt Prepares for Anthrax Threat

Egypt's Ministry of Health recently convened a high-level conference in Cairo to plan a response to a possible terrorist attack involving anthrax or other biological weapons.

The Ministry of Health says there has not been a reported case of anthrax exposure to humans in Egypt in 20 years. But with a new, potential threat as the result of terrorism, the Health Ministry has put anthrax on its priority advisory list of health threats.

Dr. Mahmoud Abou el Nasr is the First Undersecretary for Primary Health Care and Prevention at the Egyptian Ministry of Health. He says all Egyptian hospitals, clinics, and health professionals are being taught to detect and make a diagnosis of possible anthrax exposure and other potential biological weapons. "We make a revising of our plan for the surveillance of this disease, make sure we have all what we need treatment for, its detection of any cases should they appear," he said. "So we revise our plan for this disease and other diseases, plague, which could be used as a biological weapon."

Egypt has a population of more than 65 million. The government says that it has only 10,000 doses of anthrax vaccine available. The Health Ministry says it would like to have 2 to 5 million doses, although it says it has sufficient quantities of antibiotics to treat all potential infections.

A high-ranking Egyptian government official says members of the general public would have a difficult time getting the anthrax vaccine because it is primarily reserved for the military.

Anthrax is a disease caused by a type of bacteria that often afflicts cattle, sheep, and other warm blooded animals. Human exposure can occur from contact to the skin, through food, or breathing airborne particles. Left untreated it is often fatal.

The Bush administration is planning to ask Congress for more money to purchase antibiotics to counter the threat of bioterrorism. Fears of a biological attack have been heightened by an increasing number of cases in the U.S. where people have tested positive for exposure to anthrax.

Dr. el Sa'id Aly Oun is the Undersecretary of Preventive Medicine at the Egyptian Health Ministry. He says the idea of distributing gas masks to the public has been discussed, but not everyone would get a mask. "Not for everybody," he said. "We have 65 million in Egypt. I do not expect we will have 65 million gas masks because it is expensive, but we must prepare at least a half a million gas masks to be prepared for any probability of this serious matter."

Egyptian health officials say they are confident that with their current surveillance system for infectious diseases, along with regular hospital and agricultural advisories, that the best they can do to prepare for a potential biological attack is being done.