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"Be afraid. Be very afraid." That was the advertising slogan for the 1986 science-fiction film remake, The Fly. With a "remake" of the anthrax outbreak in Florida, this time at NBC News in New York, that’s exactly what a lot of us are doing.
Even before the New York case, people across North America were stampeding out of everything from subways to police stations because of anthrax angst, set off by things as little as a lunch bag left behind on a train. This is not good. Let’s step back, take a deep breath, and look at what we’re facing.
As of this writing, a writer for a Florida weekly tabloid has died of anthrax exposure. Hundreds of his fellow employees were tested, of whom at least two are positive but have no symptoms. (Usually a positive exposure means that some anthrax spores have been found in a person’s nose hairs.)
In New York, one NBC employee positive for anthrax exposure has mild symptoms, while three persons investigating the case have tested positive with no symptoms. Hundreds of other NBC employees have now been screened and tested negative.
In Nevada, some pornography sent to a Microsoft office from Malaysia twice tested negative for the bacterium. On the third test it came back positive and it’s been sent to the CDC in Atlanta for further testing. Hundreds of employees have been screened and all have been negative for exposure.
These are terrorist actions, but nothing has indicated any link to bin Laden’s buddies, other than that someone is taking advantage of a heightened state of fear that began September 11. So we’re left asking: Does it take a well-organized, well-funded organization like al Qaeda to obtain anthrax and harm people through the mail? And could this be a portent of a massive "city-busting" anthrax release we’ve long been warned of?
Here’s what you need to know: A) it doesn’t take a terrorist organization to obtain anthrax and mail it to somebody; B) it is not contagious; C) a relatively large amount of the bacteria is required to cause even mild illness depending on the mode of exposure; and, D) harming a few individuals is difficult. Harming more than a few is incredibly difficult.
Anthrax is naturally present in soil, and small disease outbreaks occur regularly in both North American wild animals and livestock. Hundreds of labs across the U.S. alone stock the bacteria, and until 1997 you didn’t even need a license to order it. It can also be cultivated from a dead animal. There are so-called "manmade" strains, those that have been altered, but the one that killed the Florida man was natural.
Terror has a new name.
The easiest route of infection is "cutaneous," meaning through cuts in the skin. This accounts for about 95% of cases and includes the initial case at NBC. The good news though is that because so few anthrax spores can enter this way, cutaneous anthrax rarely kills.
The hardest way to contract anthrax illness is through the air, as with the Florida fatality. If anthrax takes hold in the lungs and is left untreated, the death rate is about 80%. The antibiotic Cipro is the treatment of choice, although other antibiotics such as penicillin and erythromycin also work. If these are applied early, even pulmonary anthrax has a high cure rate.
There is an anthrax vaccination, but don’t even think about getting it. It takes a series of six injections spread over 18 months – plus factory problems have so reduced the stockpile that there’s not even enough for the military, much less for civilians.
What’s probably most important about anthrax is that terrorist groups have already been trying desperately for years to kill people with anthrax, as well as numerous other biological weapons, to little avail.
The new "American Gothic"
The most notorious such group, the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan, used graduate-level scientists and spent millions of dollars trying to kill people with biological weapons, including anthrax. For all their efforts, these agents caused not one death.
The problem is that weaponizing and disbursing anthrax is so difficult that it’s an absurd alternative to boring old explosives, points out Amy E. Smithson of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., coauthor of the October 2000 report, "Ataxia: The Chemical and Biological Terrorism Threat and the US Response." Specifically, anthrax needs to be powderized so the particles are small enough to lodge deep in the lungs, but not so small that when dispersed the bacterial spores dissipate and die.
Cropdusters are essentially worthless, says Dr. Smithson; almost all of the spores would be killed just during disbursal. Anthrax is harmless in drinking water. But put enough in an envelope and you might just hurt someone.
Yet we know it doesn’t take al Qaeda to kill via the U.S. Postal Service. A single homegrown terrorist like Ted Kaczynski will do just fine. The "Unabomber" killed three people and injured 29, working alone in a Montana shack with homemade explosives. Subsequently, Timothy McVeigh blew up 168 people with nothing fancier than a truck filled with chemical fertilizer.
Back to the al Qaeda brand of terrorism: What about mass-scale efforts?
Dr. Smithson writes harshly of those who warn of "10,000 - and 100,000-casualty scenarios," those that lead to anthrax and other biological weapons being lumped right alongside nukes as "weapons of mass destruction."
Timothy McVeigh’s handiwork: why is anthrax a "weapon of mass construction" but fertilizer isn’t?
hese horrific "what ifs" are about as useful as observing that American stores stock enough bullets to kill every last citizen - if we all obediently lined up for a single shot to the back of the neck.
The only mass deaths apparently connected with anthrax came from an accidental release of apparently about one trillion spores at the Sverdlovsk (now Yekatinerinburg) biological weapons compound in the former Soviet Union in 1979. Records show that of the 1.2 million residents of the city, only 66 perished.
Still, somebody here is trying to kill somebody. What should we do in the face of this new threat?
First, be rational. Over half a billion pieces of mail are delivered in this country each day. At this time, it appears three or four actually contained enough anthrax to be detectable, though in only one case enough to kill.
Second, instead of rushing to the doctor to get Cipro, get a flu shot. Why are we panicking over a single anthrax death even as 20,000 of us die annually because we refuse to get flu vaccinations?
Finally, remember that we’re in this war for the long haul. We must maintain a heightened state of alertness, but without giving the terrorists exactly what they seek by allowing them to, well, terrorize us. Ironically, not long ago I found myself writing about the widespread yet groundless fears that the anthrax vaccine was horribly dangerous. Now people are desperately clamoring to receive those very injections.
There’s never a good time for hysteria. But this may be the worst time of all.