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World: Anthrax Claims More Psychological Victims Than Physical Ones

  • Kathleen Moore

Why is there such a fear of anthrax when only four people in the U.S. have died of the disease so far? Why do people worry so much about a disease they have very little chance of catching, when they are much more at risk of falling prey to such mundane illnesses as flu or everyday events like car accidents? RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox gets the psychological perspective on the anthrax scare.

Prague, 1 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Early last month, just as doctors were investigating the first suspected case of anthrax in the U.S., some 1,000 students at schools in Manila, the Philippines, descended on local clinics with flu-like symptoms.

What had sent the pupils scurrying to the clinics were rumors -- spread through text messages printed on their mobile phones -- that they were the victims of bio-terrorism.

Days later, some 35 subway passengers in the state of Maryland reported headaches, sore throats, and feelings of nausea after a man sprayed an unknown substance into the station.

It didn't take long to rule out bio-terror in both cases. The Filipino students' ailments turned out to be nothing more serious than colds, coughs, and mild fevers, and Maryland police said the mysterious subway liquid was ordinary window cleaner.

These two incidents from opposite sides of the globe are examples of what a group of researchers have called "mass sociogenic illness" -- a sort of psychological overreaction to fear that actually makes people sick.

The researchers -- including professor Simon Wessely, a London-based psychiatry expert -- wrote about the cases in a recent report in the "British Medical Journal." They argued that the potential psychological damage done by chemical and biological weapons may be greater than the physical harm.

They wrote, "Even if the short-term consequences of an attack with chemical or biological weapons turn out to be less than some of the apocalyptic scenarios currently being aired by the media, the long-term disruptions may be worse than anticipated."

The authors add that the "general level of malaise, fear, and anxiety may remain high for years, exacerbating pre-existing psychiatric disorders and further heightening the risk of mass sociogenic illness."

The American Psychological Association has drawn up a guideline to help people cope with their fears. It's called "Handling Anxiety in the face of the anthrax scare."

Go about life as normally as possible, it advises. Talk about your feelings. Watch funny TV situation comedies. Bake cakes or play music. And if all this doesn't work, seek professional help. Above all, bear in mind the threat is still very limited and the most common form of infection -- skin anthrax -- is highly treatable.

The figures confirm the risk of contracting anthrax is miniscule.

Just four people in the U.S. have died of the disease so far. Compare that with flu, which every winter contributes to the deaths of 20,000 Americans. Road accidents -- to mention another common cause of death -- result in some 40,000 fatalities in the U.S. annually.

And yet anxiety over bio-terror attacks has emptied buildings from Jerusalem to Cape Town and made many people wary of opening mail.

So what makes people so anxious about the tiny chances of contracting anthrax?

Doctor Peter Marsh is a psychologist and director of the Oxford-based Social Issues Research Center. He's studied the psychological effects of what he calls "scare stories" for a number of years.

"The thing about anthrax is the terrifying images that can be conjured up around that subject, the kind of invisible spores that you can't detect till you've actually contracted the disease itself. I think right at the beginning, the way in which the media communicated this both in the [United] States and in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe indeed, perhaps did more damage than the terrorists could ever have hoped to achieve. Because clearly the fear of anthrax and how it affects people is greater than the number of people who have either contracted or been affected by the disease itself."

He says the psychological impact of such a scare story doesn't just mean people risk becoming neurotic and scared of the world around them.

"Equally there are people who suffer from what we call warning fatigue, that is they just switch off, they stop listening to all these scare stories. The problem there is that when there is a real risk to be communicated, those people have just switched off and they're not listening anymore."

Marsh says other health issues in recent years have produced similar reactions that are out of proportion to the actual risk. He mentions BSE, or mad cow disease, which turned many people off eating beef.

"We've also seen in this country scares about vaccines for measles and mumps for children, quite unfounded scares, but those have led parents to withdraw their children from vaccination programs, with the result that measles is now likely to become epidemic and in turn will kill hundreds of children."

Marsh says the best advice for people worried about anthrax is to keep themselves informed and seek out the facts about the disease. But others might argue that if you are reading this feature, you're not doing the best thing to ease your anthrax fears.

The American Psychological Association advises: "Limit your exposure to the news media. Overexposure to news reporting may heighten your anxiety."