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World: U.S. Experts Say Children At Greater Risk From Biological And Chemical Weapons

By Sonja Haase

Doctors involved with public health in the United States say any biological or chemical weapon attack would have a disproportionate effect on children. Health experts attending a recent conference in Washington said children are more susceptible to biological or chemical agents, but that emergency treatment is geared more toward adults.

Washington, 5 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- American public health officials say children would be at a greater risk than adults from biological or chemical terrorist attacks.

At a recent conference held at Washington's George Washington University, Dr. Philip Landrigan, a specialist, said public health officials must consider what he called "particular threats" when preparing for such an attack. Landrigan is the director of the Center of Children's Health and Environment at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

"Children are more highly exposed because they breathe quite a bit more air, pound for pound of body weight, than adults and therefore they will take into their body larger quantities of any toxic material or any infectious material which is suspended in air." In addition, he said children's skin is more permeable and they consume more water on average than do adults.

According to Landrigan, children also face greater risks than adults because of their relatively short stature. For example, he said, some airborne nerve gas agents tend to be strongest within 30 to 45 centimeters of the ground, which he said is "in the breathing zone of a child."

Children are also more vulnerable, he said, because their organs are still growing and developing.

Officials have been grappling with the broader health issues of chemical and biological attacks since the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States raised public awareness of the threat from terrorism.

Landrigan says because of the differences between children and adults, public health officials should consider different treatment methods for them.

Landrigan said, for example, emergency room staff treating an individual exposed to chemicals would usually use high-pressure hoses to clean off the individual. He said, however, small children might be too small to handle the jets of water from such high-pressure hoses.

"Well, in a little child with a small body mass and a higher surface-to-volume ratio, there's a serious downside to that, and emergency rooms are going to have to take that into consideration as they move forward with developing plans for preparedness."

A further complication in emergency rooms might be the special suits that doctors and nurses wear to protect themselves from biological and chemical agents, according to Dr. Daniel Rotrosen. Rotrosen is the director of the Division of Allergy, Immunology, and Transplantation at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

"It's difficult to imagine carrying out physician and nursing activities in these suits," he says. "It's difficult to imagine carrying out a variety of other activities essential for preparedness. Here are people putting samples in vials and bags, and you can see the effort required in these suits to just carry out regular activities is enormous."

Rotrosen said in his opinion, public vaccinations are an effective means for countering some biological threats.

Plans to reintroduce smallpox vaccinations, for example, have met with resistance by the general public. Some of the resistance is due to concern that the vaccinations themselves pose a health risk.

Rotrosen acknowledged that a small percentage of people receiving the vaccinations face the possibility of dangerous and even lethal reactions, but he dismisses the overall risk as small.

"The data for these -- such risks of vaccinations -- [are] very, very limited, and when [the data] have been looked at rigorously, they don't stand up."

Rotrosen pointed out the U.S. government has allotted $6 billion for the current fiscal year to defend against chemical and biological weapons. He said nearly $1.5 billion of this will be spent on research alone.