Bioterrorism is defined as the “unlawful use, or threatened use, of microorganisms or toxins derived from living organisms, to produce death or disease in humans, animals, or plants.” What bioterrorists are really trying to do is create fear.
Bioterrorist attacks can be Overt—with immediate impact, but early recognition is more likely. Covert acts have delayed responses, and are recognized clinically.
I found it intriguing to learn that the first attack of bioterrorism was in 600 BC. Villagers noticed that diseased rye produced an hallucinogen with effects similar to LSD (not that they knew that!). They poisoned the water supply of neighboring villages.
In WWI, Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) and Pseudomonas mallei were used to poison livestock. In 1984, in Oregon, salmonella was used in a restaurant in an attempt to make people sick so they wouldn’t be able to vote, thus fixing an election.
In 2001, in New York and Florida, spores of the anthrax bacillus were enclosed in letters.
Denene continued by telling us that anthrax is cheap relative to other weapons, and will produce about a 50% casualty rate in one square kilometer. She cited 1971 figures comparing the cost of anthrax to other weapons. Conventional poisons would be about $2000, nuclear weapons would be $800,000, Chemical warfare, about $600,000 and anthrax—one thousand. (I’m relying on my notes here, and can’t be 100% sure these figures are totally accurate, but it’s the scale that matters—I’d have Googled it, but I don’t want the FBI coming after me)
Anthrax is a weapon of choice because the initial outbreak is smaller, so it’s not as obvious that people are infected. Then, they infect others, and so on and so on. She explained that it can be either a liquid or a powder, so aerosols can be created. Weather is a key factor when using this method, however. Don’t want to be downwind when you’re spraying. It can also be administered orally through food or water contamination.
Delivery systems include the mail (spores in envelopes), food, water, sprayers—aircraft, vehicles, or by hand. In Florida, mosquito control planes flew overhead spraying insecticides—but what if someone got anthrax into the mix? Or the gardener spraying your rosebushes? Or into an air handling system in a large building, or mall? There are also human and animal vectors—those with the disease spreading it to others.
So, how are we protected? There are detection systems, where samples are collected and identified. BioWatch was created in 2001 after the letters with anthrax spore were discovered. You can find more about BioWatch here, for starters. There’s also a company called MESO Systems in Albuquerque that makes devices to collect and sample the air. Samples are tested for specifics, so you have to have an idea what you’re looking for, and then you can start narrowing things down. There’s a Laboratory Response Network that keeps researches up to speed.
And, lastly, she left us with information from the CDC website, which categorizes bioterrorism agents. The worst, level A, are things like the plague. Next, level B are bacteria like E, coli. Lastly, level C, are multi-drug resistant strains of tuberculosis.
She also showed us nifty slides of what lots of these little “bugs” looked like—but you had to be there.
Causes Terry Odell Supports
Pro Literacy Worldwide, The Nature Conservancy, The Adult Literacy League, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society