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Monday 24th October 2016

Public response to polonium

12th December 2006

30032006_large-crowd.jpgExperts are to investigate the level of public anxiety aroused by the polonium 210 poisoning scare in London.

Scientists from King's College London, along with the Health Protection Agency (HPA), the Home Office and NHS Direct are to assess the public reaction to Alexander Litvinenko's poisoning. The aim of their work is to ascertain how authorities could best handle a more widespread incident of radioactive poisoning. Bio-terrorism could spread radioactivity widely and affect large numbers of people.

Professor Simon Wessely, an expert on the psychology of warfare and terrorism, will lead the study. He plans to investigate the scale of alarm caused by continuing reports of polonium 210 contamination around London and assess the effectiveness of the information bulletins and media briefings by the HPA. The key to Professor Wessely's research is to ascertain how much the public understood and trusted the information they were given. Despite reassurances from health professionals and the government, reports of public anxiety and confusion continued to abound following the poisoning of the former Russian spy.

But Professor Wessely said, despite press reports to the contrary, that he had found no evidence of a significant increase in calls to NHS Direct or visits to accident and emergency departments. "It may be that people do trust the authorities when the chips are down", he said.

However, Bill Durodie, a lecturer in risk and security at Cranfield University, said he found the public reaction to polonium 210 highlighted the mistrust ordinary people have in the authorities. He said he had found some of the HPA's statements surrounding the polonium 210 poisoning misleading and commented that if a terrorist did spread radioactivity to cause panic, public suspicion of what the authorities told them would become a problem.

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