Does recent action in Iraq constitute biological warfare?
Press release issued: 27 August 2003
A letter published today in the International Journal of Epidemiology (IJE), edited in the Department of Social Medicine at the University of Bristol, addresses the topical issue of biological warfare.
A letter published today in the International Journal of Epidemiology (IJE), edited in the Department of Social Medicine at the University of Bristol, addresses the topical issue of biological warfare. Professor Ian Roberts of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine considers that the recent intervention in Iraq should be considered a form of biological attack.
Professor Roberts points out that a biological weapon is defined as a micro-organism that causes infectious disease. However, he broadens this definition, arguing that any action which reduces the ability of a population to resist infection constitutes a form of biological warfare.
The bombing of water supplies, sanitation plants, and the power plants that supply them, thus constitutes a form of biological attack. Whereas biological agents such as anthrax are difficult to manufacture, bombing raids can effectively wipe out sanitation and sewerage disposal systems. Extensive, population-wide, self-propagating epidemics can then result.
In Iraq this destruction of infrastructure has compounded the problems caused by years of economic sanctions, imposed by the United Nations Security Council. Restricting access to essential medicines and medical equipment has also contributed to this precarious situation, so that, for example, common respiratory viruses can become fatal.
Professor Roberts concludes: “Any malevolent intervention that impairs the ability of a civilian population to resist infection constitutes biological warfare. The full extent of civilian casualties resulting from the war on Iraq will become clear in the coming weeks and months. An effective humanitarian response must be mounted urgently to reduce the death toll from this appalling episode in the history of biological warfare.”
Failing to restore water and sanitation supplies, hospitals and health infrastructure thus forms a further attack on an already vulnerable population.
Prof. George Davey Smith, co-editor of the IJE said: “The concern of our journal is to understand the factors which affect the health of populations. It is thus vital that we consider the full range of the determinants of health, not shying away from those with political dimensions. Professor Roberts’ letter is vital for signalling the future potential health problems that may result from military interventions of the kind recently witnessed in Iraq, and the humanitarian response that is urgently needed”.
Letter: Ian Roberts, ‘Biological warfare and the people of Iraq’ IJE 2003, Vol 32, No 4 pp660-661.