- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The number of people who only think they have symptoms from a chemical, biological or nuclear incident could far exceed the number of actual victims, according to a confidential briefing document prepared by the Department of Homeland Security.

“Mass psychogenic illness [can] spread rapidly throughout a population,” the briefing document states, citing incidents in California in 2003 and Chechnya in 2005.

The document defines mass psychogenic illness as a “phenomenon in which social trauma or anxiety combines with a suspicious event to produce psychosomatic symptoms, such as nausea, difficulty breathing and paralysis.”

The classified document, prepared in 2006, was leaked and posted last week on the Wikileaks Web site.

The Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on the leak and the content of the document.

The briefing document notes that statements made by public officials during a catastrophic event can make matters worse and their ability to improve the situation depends heavily on the public’s perception of their credibility, which some fear is eroding.

George Foresman, who had served as Homeland Security’s undersecretary for preparedness until last year, questions whether the average person would “trust what the government tells them about the likelihood that they’ve been exposed or not been exposed to a certain pathogen or a chemical.”

“The trust between the American people and those who are in positions of authority and responsibility is not as strong as it needs to be,” Mr. Foresman told United Press International.

Public fear is likely to be greatest in the event of “something where you cannot see easily whether you’ve been affected or not,” such as the release of a biological agent, he said. “The antidote to that fear is guidance and information.”

“Government [communication] has got to be direct, it’s got to be quick and it’s got to be exact,” said Mr. Foresman, who is a disaster planning and response consultant. “The officials need to be credible.”

He said this kind of crisis communication requires “in-depth discussions with the local and national media about what you know and - to be honest - what you don’t know.”

Jim Harper, director of information policy studies for the libertarian Cato Institute, said the U.S. government has failed to do necessary strategic thinking about reassuring people in the event of an incident.

Psychosomatic effects aside, disaster-planning experts say that other effects of panic during a chemical or biological attack - the impact on transportation systems and the nation’s economy, for example - could far outweigh the direct effects on the victims and their communities.

There is “a lack of truly strategic planning,” Mr. Harper said. “What kind of communications will reassure people that their society is not under threat [of destruction]?”

“It’s got to be more than just ‘run for the hills,’ even if you’re saying, ‘These are the specific hills you should run for,’” he said.

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