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Anthrax: A Former US Navy Officer Explains

Reliable info on anthrax can be found at: //www.anthrax.osd.mil/Flash_interface/default.html. Underneath my text, I’ve pasted a few select facts from the website that should answer any questions I didn’t cover in the body of my writing. Personally, I have not received the battery of shots. The vaccine is in short supply, and–at last check–only made by one poorly managed firm (BioPort Corporation of Lansing, Michigan).

First of all, it’s important to know that while anthrax has been the weapon of choice for terrorists of late, because it’s easy to produce, store, and disseminate, it is one of many biological organisms that is well-suited to attack the human body and capable of being mass produced. Biological attack is not something new–in fact there are well-documented examples of it being used with varying degrees of success in the Middle Ages, the French & Indian War, and World War I.

Biological agents can be grouped into two categories: viral and bacterial.
Anthrax is a bacterial agent. What this means for someone who’s infected by non-inhaled anthrax spores, is that it can typically be treated with antibiotics. Inhaled anthrax is far more deadly, especially for someone who has not been vaccinated. The effectiveness of the treatment depends, in large measure, on how quickly anthrax exposure is recognized as the root cause. This is not as simple a matter as it may appear.

The symptoms of an anthrax infection can at first be confused with a virus such as the flu. Viruses are organisms for which antibiotic treatments are ineffective, and for which doctors are trained not to prescribe antibiotics. Anthrax is NOT contagious–you can only get sick by being exposed directly to spores–either through inhalation, digestion of contaminated meat, or direct contact. In other words, infected people cannot spread the disease to other humans through coughing, sneezing, etc… A vaccine exists for the version of anthrax found naturally in sheep–it has been used for 30 years to protect livestock workers, and despite some bad press as a result of a poorly managed Department of Defense vaccination program, it is very safe. Serious reactions requiring hospitalization occur about once in 200,000 doses.

Viral organisms present a more difficult problem and are only marginally treatable–the flu (influenza) and HIV are examples of well known viruses. When you get the flu, a doctor may prescribe decongestant, pain relievers, fluids, and bed rest. While these treatments may comfort a patient and strengthen the immune system, they are not directly “disarming” the offending virus. At the end of the day, our treatments for viral infections are only marginally better than they were 70 years ago. One semi-effective defense against a virus is a specifically developed vaccine. Most viruses, however, do not have effective vaccines, and viruses are often able to adapt and change their makeup to render a vaccine ineffective.

It is important to note that a vaccine can only work properly if administered PRIOR to infection. Having a strong immune system–supported by a body that is well rested, nourished and hydrated is also critical to beating a virus. The more “exotic” viruses suited to biological attack include Ebola, plague, and smallpox.

So how do terrorist get their hands on these “weapons?” Unfortunately, terrorists can quite literally cook them up in their garages. Many biological agents, such as anthrax, can be produced in small quantities with fairly common laboratory equipment and with a bachelors degree level of biology expertise. For the more exotic viral strains, the blame can be placed squarely on the former Soviet Union. With the disintegration of the USSR, a portion of Soviet stocks, “WIP,” and expertise became loosely controlled. It is generally believed that some of this technology and the scientists that produced it found their way into the grasp of Nations such as Iran and Iraq, and may even have been transferred to terrorist organizations.

So what do you need to know to stay safe? First, the odds of large-scale direct exposure from an attack are pretty slim, and the federal government is going to great lengths to prevent mass dissemination, hunt down terrorists, and stockpile antibiotics. Even more than a military concern, biological attack is a public health problem. While the threat of attacks are certainly frightening, from a medical standpoint, a naturally occurring epidemic, for which the United States is somewhat prepared, is basically handled in the same manner as a deliberate attack.

Some quick & reliable anthrax facts from the DoD website:
Anthrax is almost always DEADLY if not treated early.
Anthrax is easily spread in the air over a large area
At least 7 of the U.S.’s potential adversaries have worked to develop an offensive biological warfare capability using anthrax. Iraq has admitted to producing and weaponizing anthrax. The former Soviet Union produced hundreds of tons of weapons-grade anthrax spores.

October 22, 2001
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