`So much more' to fret about in Pakistan

Anthrax scare draws scant attention among myriad health concerns

War On Terrorism : The World

November 06, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Just the other day, Mehmood Sham found himself in the front lines of the war against bioterrorism, when an envelope containing a strange white powder arrived at the offices of Jang, the daily newspaper he runs in Karachi.

The powder tested positive for anthrax, taking the anthrax scare international for the first time. Sham's staff went on antibiotics, and national health officials sealed off the offices of Pakistan's largest newspaper. A day later, Sham was back at his desk, rattled only by the thought of his next deadline.

"I think people in Pakistan, they are not that much upset about anthrax because we have so much more to be worried about," he said. "We don't have so much hygiene here. We can drink any kind of water and breathe any kind of air. Our life is already so conditioned to so many bad things that we don't get as upset about this as someone in the United States or Europe would."

Indeed, in a country where health worries include malaria, malnourishment, cholera and hemorrhagic fever, a few envelopes of anthrax spores don't seem like much to get excited about.

Just last week, a noted gynecologist announced that 300 Pakistani women were dying each day due to complications to their pregnancies. Two days ago, a national campaign to inoculate all children against polio suffered a setback when one of its roving vans was robbed and looted. An outbreak of dog bite cases in the Nawabshah district has authorities worrying about rabies.

And, as Sham implied, anyone who has ever breathed in Pakistan's gray airborne soup of wood smoke, tire smoke, dung smoke and the inky exhaust of trucks, buses and motor-rickshaws might doubt that an anthrax spore could even survive.

All that helps explain why Jang was one of the few newspapers to carry the anthrax story on the front page. Unlike the United States, where updated totals of deaths, infections and exposures roll across TV screens like a stock ticker, no one here seems certain from one day to the next exactly how many people have been affected, or in how many places.

Newspapers have mentioned a law firm, a bank and sites of other powders testing positive, but government officials have yet to confirm those reports.

Among the baffled is Dr. Athar Saeed Dil, who, as executive director of Pakistan's National Institute of Health, is supposed to be on top of these things. But all Dil is sure of is that no one has yet contracted the disease. "So it is not wise to call these people `patients,' or to call these anthrax `cases,'" he said. "The right words are `exposed persons.'"

But how many of those are there? "It's difficult to know the exact number," he said. "General [Pervez] Musharraf said the other day there had been two."

Musharraf, Pakistan's president, runs the country, so . Dil is going with that number for now. In the meantime, he wishes that one of the private laboratories that tested the Jang anthrax would send a sample to his institute for further testing. "They have not yet done that," he said, sounding put out. "But I think that perhaps some will be arriving soon."

For now he is using his office to urge people to remain calm, especially if they should open a piece of mail containing powder. "The first thing you should do is hold your breath," he advised, "so nothing can go in your respiratory passages. If you scream or panic or throw everything into the air, this can very easily get everything allover the place."

Law enforcement officials, on the other hand, seem to be faring better than their U.S. counterparts. Police detained a man over the weekend who admitted delivering the envelope to Jang. He said he didn't know the powder was inside, blaming a friend who works for a computer company. Police are now seeking the friend.

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