How can physicians assist in the investigation of bioterrorism or other biocrimes?


Physicians are often advised to be on the alert for cases of bioterrorism yet no one has advised them how to respond if they wish to help catch the criminal. But now a team of scientists has published the first major guidance aimed at physicians who wish to assist law enforcement in the investigation of a biocrime. The guidance is published in the open access international medical journal PLoS Medicine (free online).

Dr. Steven E. Schutzer of the UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School, Dr. Bruce Budowle of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Dr. Ronald M. Atlas of the University of Louisville say in their guidance that, "Patients who believe that they have been a victim of a biocrime generally want both a medical and law enforcement response--that is, they want medical treatment, and they want the perpetrator to be found, prosecuted, and punished."

Bioterror crimes - real and hoaxes - are well known. Non-bioterror biocrimes include a laboratory technician who poisoned her coworkers by putting a laboratory stock of a harmful bacterium called Shigella dysenteriae (which causes dysentery) into muffins, the deliberate poisoning of salad bars in The Dalles, Oregon, with Salmonella typhimurium (which causes food poisoning) to skew an election for political gain, and the case of direct injection of HIV tainted blood as a weapon into an unsuspecting victim.

Physicians may be compelled by law to work with law enforcement as well as public health officials in investigating a biocrime, or they may wish to do so, with their patient's consent, to serve their patient's interests. Schutzer and colleagues' article provides an overview of the new field of microbial forensics and outlines how physicians should:

  • Report a suspected biocrime
  • Collect forensic evidence that can assist the investigation (the process is analogous to the way in which physicians collect and preserve evidence when they treat a patient who has been the victim of a sexual assault)
  • Document details of the patient's medical history and physical exam.

    "Physicians can ultimately serve their patients by acting, in the traditional role, as a healer," say the authors, "and by working with public health and law enforcement entities to help prevent further attacks and to achieve justice. As with sexual assaults, identification and conviction of the attacker can bring closure and provide a degree of security to the patient."

    Source: Eurekalert & others

    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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