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WHO: Little risk from stolen polio

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CNN's Christiane Amanpour says officials at a Baghdad lab are concerned that pathogens might be released in the wake of recent looting. (April 17)
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Vials of polio virus stolen during the looting of Iraq's central public health laboratory probably do not pose an immediate health risk, the World Health Organization said Friday.

Iraq has been polio-free for more than two years and it was not likely the cultures in the incubators contained wild poliovirus, according to the WHO report.

Looters ransacked the laboratory Thursday, ignoring hand-scrawled warnings on the front gate reading "pollution," "biohazard" and "danger." Vials, syringes and papers were left strewn across the courtyard floor.

The lab, Iraq's version of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had polio and hepatitis samples, according to Dr. Kameledeen Mohammad, the center's biologist.

Mohammad said Thursday he was concerned the looting could have released them into the general population.

"All these viruses could spread in our population, and [our work] we are doing for many years -- maybe 40 years -- will go to be zero," he said.

While most of the vials and samples were dumped on the ground outside, researchers were worried some looters left with potentially dangerous material from refrigerators and other equipment stolen from the site last week after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.

But the WHO report said that as a national laboratory the center was not likely to have had wild polio virus control specimens, and if such specimens did exist, they would deteriorate once the refrigerators were unplugged.

U.S. Central Command Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said Friday that U.S. officials did not know who removed the material or whether it was an organized effort.

Since the collapse of Saddam's regime looting has taken place in towns and cities across Iraq, including from the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, which contains treasures dating back thousands of years. (Full story)

The lab had been calling for U.S. military protection and that arrived Thursday along with a special task force with a mission of its own.

"We're here to find signs of weapons of mass destruction," said Lt. Col. Charles Allison of the U.S. Army's 75th Exploitation Task Force, one of four teams scouring Iraq for chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

Allison and his specialized soldiers donned gloves and protective boots as they surveyed the looted premises. His team has inspected 15 sites in Iraq and so far they have found nothing.

The search at the lab was similar. Task force members said they found nothing that could not be found in any public health research lab anywhere in the world.

From CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour.

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