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Saturday, June 22, 2024

U.S. government must prepare for bioterrorism

This past week, panic erupted in Florida because of anthrax. Anthrax obviously doesn't normally float around office buildings; somebody has to put it there. The FBI has taken over the investigation because criminal intent was most likely behind this incident. Have we been attacked again? Maybe, but it's not something to worry too much about. 




Someone has died because of malicious use of the deadly bacteria anthrax. But this alone isn't reason enough to fear that tomorrow spores of anthrax will rain down upon our cities and our water supplies from crop-dusters piloted by fanatics. 




First, only anthrax in liquid form can be used in crop-dusting equipment. In his book 'Living Terrors: What America Needs to Know to Survive the Upcoming Bioterrorist Catastrophe,' Michael T. Osterholm wrote of the sheer difficulties involved in a bioterror attack, including shifting winds and special equipment needed for effective germ spreading. Commercial crop-dusters contain nozzles that produce droplets far too large to get deep into human lungs and it would require major modifications to adapt the sprayer's nozzles to produce a finer mist of particles. Noted bioweapons expert Stephen Block has spoken about how 'a crop-duster is likely to do a very bad job.'  




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There are additional difficulties with anthrax produced in powder form. To be made airborne and breathable, the spores need to be manufactured to a specific size and weight. Though there are multiple strains of varying hardiness and deadliness, terrorists need to get their hands on the 'best' strains to hope for even minimal success.  




On top of that, anthrax is not communicable. Infection can only occur in a very small time frame. A large problem is that the U.S. public doesn't know this. 




The U.S. government must do a better job of educating the public regarding bioterrorism, both to prevent panic in case of an attack and to mitigate unwarranted fear. Last summer, four independent non-profit organizations, with the assistance of the federal government, ran the 'Dark Winter' exercise, a simulation that released smallpox in the United States to evaluate the government's response. The results showed the public needs to be better educated about both the risks of a biological event and what to do if one happens. Margaret Hamburg, a public health expert who portrayed the Secretary of Health and Human Services in the simulation, said, 'As Dark Winter unfolded, it was evident that a sense of desperation about what needed to be done arose, at least in part because the country [had not] educated the American people or developed strategies to constructively engage the media to educate people about what was happening and how to protect themselves.' The scare caused by anthrax in Florida is unnecessary and could have been prevented. 




Perhaps the threat of bioterrorism is exaggerated, but unfortunately credible risks do exist. Major events'attacks by terrorists using smallpox, Marburg or plague'need key scientific and military resources that only a nation-state can provide. Testifying this summer before Congress, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson stated between nine and 13 nations have working biological weapons programs, including Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya and North Korea. Known terrorist cells operate in all of those nations, but the No. 1 threat is from our old buddy Iraq. Last night on primetime TV, President Bush, responding to a question on bioterrorism, stated, 'There is no question the leader of Iraq is an evil man. We know that he has manufactured weapons of mass destruction. We're watching him carefully.' The United States needs to do more than watch'it needs to act. Iraq is a dangerous nation, willing and able to sponsor terrorism. In a 1999 article, the New York Post stated, 'The CIA has received 'credible and reliable' intelligence reports that Saddam is forging alliances with some of the Middle East's most bloodthirsty terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, [and] are concerned about the possibility that Saddam could not only help with funding and logistics for bin Laden's far-flung network, ... but he could also help the group acquire chemical and biological weapons.' Al Qaeda is known to have cells operating in Iraq and, because of our government's financial crackdown on terrorist groups, they would probably be more than willing to accept assistance from a like-minded ideologue such as Saddam Hussein. 




The results of the Dark Winter exercise showed a failure on the part of the government. The simulation was turned off after two-and-a-half days because 'too many people were dying,' according to former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga. Nunn, who portrayed the president in the simulation, stated, 'The most insidious effect of a biological weapons attack is that it can turn Americans against Americans. Once smallpox is released, it is not the terrorists anymore who are the threat; your neighbors and family members can become the threat, and can even become the enemy, without strong and effective leadership at every level of government including health officials.' America must be educated about how to protect themselves and our national security. At the same time, the U.S. government must do all it can to make sure that threat never turns into an event. 




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