Death in the air

Riddle of R & L3. Stroke of genius?4. Attitudes are a' changin'1. Bioterrorism -- real or imagined?

2. Do-it-yourself?

3. What to do?

4. A disastrous history

5. The deadly bugs of war

Scientists are developing an anthrax decontamination foam that can be sprayed from handheld canisters or piped through building sprinkler systems.
Randy Montoya, Sandia National Laboratories.




Patients infected with botulinum toxin often need artificial ventilation. A tube in the lungs is attached to a breathing machine.
Centers for Disease Control.


Man in a blue protective suit sprays foam from a hand-held canister.Since the Gulf War, whenever biological-weapon threats are discussed, Anthrax inevitably tops the list. The reasons are not just alphabetical.

Ordinarily a cattle disease, Anthrax is caused by the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis. When the bacterium is inhaled, as is likely if terrorists released it into the air, the first symptoms would resemble the common cold, with death quickly following. Antibiotics work if started before symptoms appear - a daunting problem since no widely available test quickly identifies anthrax. Anthrax vaccine is available only to the military.

The World Health Organization says an anthrax attack on a city of 5 million could cause 250,000 causalities and 100,000 deaths.

Botulinum toxin
Doctor adjusts breathing tube on a man in hospital bed.Botulinum toxin is one of the most poisonous substances known and has been a component of many bio-weapons programs. The toxin, derived from the anaerobic bacteria Clostridium botulinum, causes muscle paralysis when ingested. After gastrointestinal distress, victims are often unable to speak, see or swallow.

Scientists have used a botulinum toxoid to protect laboratory workers, but its availability is limited, and must be taken for months before creating immunity.

In the Middle Ages, plague, known as "Black Death," killed huge numbers in Europe, the Middle East and China, and altered the demography of the medieval world. Given this gruesome history, it is not surprising that even a few scattered cases of plague can create panic. That makes plague an ideal terror weapon.

Scientists in white lab suits and protective masks inspect a mouse.In protective suits, scientists test mice for plague bacteria. There is no widely used method to detect airborne plague bacilli. Centers for Disease Control.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviet Union began developing plague bacteria (Yersinia pestis) as an airborne bioweapon. Pneumonic plague causes fever, chills, headache, malaise and prostration, and often death within six days. Unfortunately, the attack would be detected only after people began getting seriously sick.

The World Health Organization estimates that an aerosol attack with 50 kilograms of plague over a city of 5 million would cause 150,000 cases of disease and 36,000 deaths.

Smallpox was eradicated from the wild in 1980. Now this horrible disease has emerged as a serious bioterrorist threat due to its high fatality rates and easy transmissibility. Toward the close of the Cold War, the Soviets developed a smallpox weapon, and a Russian facility can still make large quantities of virus, in ever-more virulent and contagious strains.

Terrorists would likely unleash smallpox as an aerosol. After a long incubation period (12 to 14 days), symptoms would include high fever, malaise, prostration, headache, backache, and ultimately a horrifying rash. Sores are round, tense, and deeply embedded, and survivors are scarred for life.

Tularemia is caused by one of the most infectious pathogenic bacteria. Inhaling just 10 Francisella tularensis organisms can cause disease. The U.S. and Soviet bioweapon programs both developed tularemia weapons.

Round, pus-filled sore on human skin.Tulameria patients develop an ulcer at the infection site. The less common, inhaled form, causes sudden chills, fever, weight loss, abdominal pains, tiredness, headaches and an unusual pneumonia that can be fatal.
Courtesy Beagles Unlimited.

The World Health Organization estimates that releasing 50 kilograms of bacteria over a city of 5 million would cause 250,000 incapacitating causalities, including some 19,000 deaths.

After incubating for one to 14 days, the disease causes a range of acute, non-specific feverish illnesses. Without antibiotic treatment, tularemia causes respiratory failure and shock; death rates reach 30 to 60 percent with some strains.

A vaccine gives incomplete protection, but the disease moves so quickly that vaccination may fail unless given before exposure. There are no simple, rapid, and reliable tests to identify those potentially infected by a tularemia attack.

You can read more in our bio-death bibliography.




  back more
  The Why Files   There are 1 2 3 4 5 pages in this feature.
Bibliography | Credits | Feedback | Search