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Published: Thursday, 10/11/2001

The bio-terror threat

The death of a Florida man from anthrax doesn't appear to have been the work of terrorists, but it does lend currency and urgency to the importance of protecting the country from biological and chemical attacks. Like making airport security actually secure, safety from bio-terrorism won't be easy, cheap, or quick.

Evaporation of the “Fortress America” myth in the wreckage of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon produced a whole clutch of renewed security worries, especially when it was learned that one of the terrorist-hijackers had inquired in Florida a year ago about buying an aircraft equipped for crop-dusting.

Suddenly, nothing is so ghastly as to be unthinkable, including spreading death across our population via biological agents such as anthrax, smallpox, plague, or botulism. A crop duster could become a weapon of mass human destruction.

Just six days before the infamous Sept. 11 attacks, D.H. Henderson, director of the Center for Civilian Biodefense at Johns Hopkins University, gave this frightening testimony at a congressional hearing: “We are today ill-prepared to deal with (a bio-terror-induced) epidemic of any sort,” he said. “There is, as yet, no comprehensive national plan nor an agreed strategy for dealing with the problems of biological weapons.”

As we learned in New York and Washington, the terrorists apparently are several steps ahead of U.S. security planners. We recognize the threat, but have not figured out how to deal with it.

Consider smallpox, at one time the world's most horrific communicable disease. It was considered eradicated from the planet in 1980, but both the United States and the former Soviet Union kept samples of the virus and there are reports that the Soviets produced large quantities for doomsday weapons. If so, where is it now?

The potential use of smallpox as a terrorist weapon is all the more serious because U.S. experts say we possess only 10 million of the 40 million doses of vaccine needed to contain a major outbreak. And some of that may be outdated. How long would it take to recoup? Three years, an eternity in the dangerous new world in which we now live.

In the Florida anthrax case, in which one man died and another was found to have been exposed to the non-communicable disease, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta organized overnight shipment of 100 cases of antibiotics from federal stockpiles to the scene. That quick response is heartening, but most experts say reaction to a major event would be far less successful.

In particular, the nation's public health system, which should be the first line of defense against any mass outbreak of disease, whether produced by terrorists or not, has been neglected for decades. Equipping police and fire fighters with bio-hazard suits is useful as far as it goes, but physicians, nurses, and other personnel in local hospitals need to be trained and equipped, as they will be the ones who will be called on to provide initial diagnosis and treatment.

A good first step is legislation introduced Tuesday by Sen. George Voinovich (R., Ohio) and several other ex-governors that would provide $2.5 billion over five years to help states prepare for bio-terrorism.

To say that the United States should get busy and do what needs to be done to protect against biological threats is far too simplistic. There are many threats from many directions and limits on our capability to respond to them all.

In the short run, eradicating the terrorists may be the surest way to eliminate the use of disease as a weapon in this new war against civilization.



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