Archive for Wednesday, September 26, 2001

Shouts and Murmurs

Implications of biological warfare

September 26, 2001

The threat of biological warfare was something Americans never worried about before.

But now, with knowledge that terrorists have been looking into the technology of crop dusting, experts are wondering how real is the threat of biological warfare. Is it possible that citizens could become victims of diseases such as smallpox or anthrax?

The United States has been free of smallpox for more than half a century, and today's citizens would be highly susceptible. Routine childhood smallpox vaccinations were stopped in 1972. For people who were vaccinated before that, it is unknown how much protection the vaccine would now afford. This is why, according to the June 9, 1999, Journal of American Medical Association, smallpox, if used as a biological weapon, could represent a serious threat to Americans:

"Although smallpox has long been feared as the most devastating of all infectious diseases, its potential for devastation today is far greater than at any previous time."

Moreover, experts say, in our mobile society, smallpox could spread widely and rapidly.

Smallpox has an average incubation period of 12 to 14 days. At the end of this time, fever and aches develop, and two days later a rash begins to develop. The patient at this point is infectious and death usually occurs within five or six days.

Anthrax, another disease mentioned in talk of biological warfare, is just as deadly. Although anthrax could be treated with antibiotics, in the event of biological warfare, the supply of antibiotics would likely run short.

Symptoms of anthrax usually occur within seven days. Anthrax spores can be brought into the body through cuts in the skin, which is the most common means of transmission, by inhalation and by digestion.

Anthrax contracted through the skin and the digestive tract can sometimes be cured, anthrax that enters by inhalation usually causes death within several days.

Both smallpox and anthrax could be spread by aerosol, which would mean easily spread by a crop duster. This is why the Federal Aviation Administration has since Sept. 11, three times grounded the planes.

The use of biological warfare is nothing new. The practice dates as far back as 400 BC, when Scythians infected arrows by dipping them in decomposing bodies. During the French and Indian Wars (1754-1767) blankets used by smallpox victims were deliberately distributed among American Indians, ultimately killing more than 50 percent of many infected tribes.

Today's Americans could be just as vulnerable.

When suicide terrorists can wipe out more than 6,000 lives of innocent people in a matter of minutes, we realize that humans, if they may be called that, could also be capable of resorting to biological warfare to weaken the strongest nation on earth.

The terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001 has taken lives and it has changed lives. Three weeks ago we didn't worry about being in tall buildings, airplanes or trains. Now we do.

And, we worry about something else we didn't think about before biological warfare.

We are told that returning to our normal lives is the best revenge. But, in light of the tragedies wrought so far, as well as the threats we continue to face, the question begs: Will anything ever be normal again?

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