Bioterrorism: Under the Radar

3 years ago ccwa 1

6482-gas-maskIf someone were to ask, “On a scale of one to ten, what do you think is the chance that you will experience a bioterrorist attack during your lifetime,” how would you respond?

A three? A five? A seven?

Living in an average-sized city in the Midwestern United States far from any major economic or political centers, the majority of people in Columbus would consider themselves relatively safe. In evaluating potential terrorist targets in the US, Columbus doesn’t strike people as a city in danger. Most would envision more populous or at least more economically important cities as more likely targets.

Moreover, biological weapons are not often associated with “typical” terrorism and are not considered equivalent to other weapons of mass destruction in terms of damage inflicted . Chemical or nuclear weapons still prevail in their effectiveness and sure chance of success.  Biological weapons are highly unpredictable because they rely so heavily on environmental and population factors.  If the wind blows in the wrong direction or if it rains after agent dissemination, the results may be entirely different than the ones initially expected.

Additionally, increased access to vaccines and antibiotics have made it easier to protect against many biological agents over the past couple decades. In the case of smallpox, the disease has been both eradicated and protected against with stockpiles of vaccines. Furthermore, countries around the world have installed various detection and prevention measures within their borders, such as air monitoring  and water purification centers.

Yet despite evidence that points to the failure  of bioterrorism, many believe it still presents a real threat. Dr. Boehm , professor of Plant Pathology at the Ohio State University, believes that we have  a 6 out of 10 chance of being affected by a bioterrorism attack within our lifetime. A hypothetical scenario presented by Johns Hopkins professor Dr. Thomas Inglesby based on epidemiological models points to how disastrous an attack on an average-sized city could be.

Imagine the following:

On November 1st, in a Northeastern U.S. city with a population of about 2 million , an unmarked truck drives upwind of a football stadium and releases aerosolized anthrax headed towards  74,000 cheering fans.

About 16,000 fans and 4,000 residents in the city become infected.

Within the next 48 hours, some infected people report to medical professionals, but their flu-like symptoms do not cause much  alarm.

By November 4th, only 4 days later, 80 people have died, 1,200 have fallen ill and nearly all hospital beds are filled up. Still, there is no diagnosis.

By November 6th, 3,200 have become ill, 900 of which have died. The cause of the epidemic has been identified to be anthrax, but there are no more antibiotics left to cure the disease.

By November 8th, 4,800 persons have developed symptoms and 2,400 have been killed by the attack. The National Guard has been called in to quell the riots at distribution centers.

In the aftermath, Dr. Inglesby projects that “of the 20,000 persons originally infected, 4,000 died, most in the first 10 days after the attack… Many refuse to return to their homes downwind of the stadium… City commerce suffers tremendous losses. The tourism industry collapses.

As chilling as the local consequences of the attack are, the scenario does not even count those at the game who left the town or the country after being infected. Since about 10 percent of the U.S. population lives abroad, there is a good chance that some of the infected individuals traveled overseas within the first twenty days and fell sick outside the country.

This is just the havoc that would be caused by an attack using anthrax, a relatively treatable contagion. Consider how much worse it would be if the attackers used a more virulent agent, such as an antibiotics-resistant strain of smallpox.

So if someone were to ask you now—”on a scale of 1 to 10, what do you think is the chance that you will experience a bioterrorism attack within your lifetime”—how would you respond?

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by Yuliya Vanchosovych

(photo credit: cdn.isciencetimes.com, resources0.news.com.au)