VIDEO

Terrorists can exploit fears during a pandemic

Pandemic expert Richard Coker experienced a scare in 2006 when he was suspected of having been exposed to a radioactive substance that killed an ex-Russian agent that same year. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Pandemic expert Richard Coker experienced a scare in 2006 when he was suspected of having been exposed to a radioactive substance that killed an ex-Russian agent that same year. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Pandemic expert Richard Coker experienced a scare in 2006 when he was suspected of having been exposed to a radioactive substance that killed an ex-Russian agent that same year.

The spy Alexander Litvinenko died after drinking tea laced with the rare radioactive isotope, polonium-210, in a plush hotel in London. Traces of polonium were later found across London and even on some flights between London and Moscow.

Professor Coker was among the thousands who received a letter from the authorities saying that he might have been exposed to the poison and needed to go for tests. Fortunately, he was not affected.

"I had never heard of polonium, an odourless, tasteless substance. It created a lot of anxiety for those who were exposed to it as well as those who were suspected of being exposed to it,'' says 53-year-old Prof Coker. More than 1,000 people jammed the London authorities' telephone lines, afraid that they had polonium poisoning.

Such mass panic can also occur during a pandemic outbreak and it can be exploited by terrorists to heighten the fear of infection and death.

"You can generate mass panic without killing a lot of people,'' he says.

Sometimes the fear of the disease can be greater than the ability of the bug to kill thousands, says the expert who heads the Infectious Disease Programme at the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.

His research interests include communicable diseases, emerging infectious diseases and pandemic preparedness. His work is valued by security agencies like Singapore's National Security Coordination Secretariat.

Prof Coker believes that while disease surveillance and pandemic preparedness are important, more effort needs to go into research on how viruses - both naturally occurring and man made ones - attack and spread.

mnirmala@sph.com.sg

Read the full interview in The Straits Times today.

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