Health officials in the United States and abroad, concerned about the disorganized world response to the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, believe there is an urgent need for an international agency to coordinate health information about radiation levels around the globe and to react more rapidly to such a disaster.
In addition to well-publicized concern about the lack of information provided by the Soviet Union, there has been growing private frustration about a larger problem the Chernobyl disaster posed for an unprepared world.
No international mechanism was in place to begin immediate collection, dissemination and interpretation of potential health consequences, if any, of the myriad radiation readings gathered by dozens of countries as the radioactive particles spewing from the Soviet plant drifted around the world, officials said.
Instead, since Sweden reported the first increase in radioactivity last week, there has been a piecemeal, country-by-country scramble to track down radiation reports from individual countries and their potential health implications, from short-term consequences for food and water to longterm disease rates.
Sources said, for example, that at one point last week U.S. officials who sought to reach a World Health Organization (WHO) hot line were answered with a recording suggesting they call back during the day.
"There is concern that there is no central clearinghouse for radiation information," said the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Frank E. Young, a member of the government task force monitoring the Soviet accident and head of a health subgroup.
Young was reached in Geneva, where he is in the American delegation attending the two-week annual WHO assembly that began Monday.
Gino Levi, WHO spokesman in Geneva, agreed yesterday with American questions raised about the chaotic radiation information available last week. "I concur. There was no central place. That's precisely the concern."
He noted that in the absence of central guidance, a "wide variety of decisions by separate national authorities" were taken based on often incomplete "bilateral information" exchanged among individual countries, including efforts to ban vegetables and milk and restrict imports. "It's creating havoc," Levi said.
Levi said he expected that debate among the 166 countries that belong to WHO "might trigger some response to seek new ways and means of avoiding repetition of this unhappy situation," including a "mechanism to coordinate international disaster preparedness" for nuclear accidents.
He quoted Irish health minister Barry Desmond as saying there was "a very urgent need" for action by the WHO and other international bodies, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
In what appeared to be the first concerted regional effort, a group of specialists assembled by WHO's European office met late yesterday in Copenhagen to begin developing recommendations for dealing with the accident. The group is expected to issue an initial report today.
"One point of the report will certainly be more exchange of information," said Dr. Marc Danzon of the WHO European office. He said that last week "it was a little bit difficult because there was no collection point for information from Europe . . . . We were not in charge."
"The flow of information through any official international agencies has been virtually nonexistent . . . . We found nobody who was doing it," said John Villforth, head of the FDA's National Center for Devices and Radiological Health here. He said that the "information came in piecemeal," largely through informal, personal contacts abroad, particularly in Sweden.
He and others said the limited information hampered U.S. efforts to provide speedy advice for citizens abroad, assess food products coming from affected countries, and monitor the radiation cloud.
In addition, sources said that a State Department telex message directing embassies to gather radiation information apparently did not received the highest priority and responses did not start coming in until early this week.