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Frequently Asked Questions
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Where can I get more information on what my city or community is doing to prepare for a biological or chemical attack?

Although 120 cities are involved with the U.S. government's recent efforts to prepare for such events, currently there is no centralized plan for them to follow. Each city/community is different in terms of its level of readiness and plan of action. Also, each city/community may vary on which local groups are responsible for responding to a chemical/biological attack.

For more information on what your city/community/state is doing to prepare, call your local health department, your mayor's office or other local elected officials.

What is biological and chemical warfare?

It is a warfare that employs biological or chemical agents to intentionally inflict harm. Biological agents usually are dispersed by an aerosol spray that must be either inhaled or ingested. Biological agents usually have an incubation period of several days before any symptoms appear. Chemical agents are absorbed through the skin or by inhalation. Chemical agents typically cause immediate symptoms.

What type of biological agents are out there?

The Center for Disease Control has a section on infectious diseases with detailed information, including maps, images and fact sheets.

And here's a basic rundown:

Anthrax: Anthrax is a bacteria. It has a spore form that makes it extremely resistant to the environment. It is highly infectious and lethal when inhaled. It is a one-time agent--it does not spread from person to person. An anthrax vaccine does exist, but is not readily available.

(Also: Read the Dept. of Defense's information on anthrax). Or, read a scientific presentation on anthrax (with pictures) from the U. of Wisconsin's Dept. of Bacteriology lecture.

Smallpox: Smallpox is a virus. It is highly contagious, transmits through the atmosphere very easily and has a high mortality rate. A worldwide vaccination program eliminated smallpox in the 1970s. Both the United States and the former Soviet Union officially maintained small quantities of the virus at two labs. However, there is the suspicion that it may have been or is still researched and developed at other labs either within Russia or in other countries, thus increasing the concern of smallpox being used as a biological weapon.

(Also: Read an article on the history of smallpox on the American College of Physicians web site.)

Plague: Plague is a bacteria that is highly contagious. It causes a type of pneumonia in a number of patients and can be fatal if not caught early. (see the CDC site above for more)

Ebola: Ebola is a viral hemorrhagic fever caused by a virus. It is extremely lethal and its symptoms are profuse bleeding from the orifices. There is no cure or treatment.

Marburg: Marburg is another hemorrhagic fever caused by a virus. It is extremely lethal and its symptoms are profuse bleeding from the orifices. There is no cure or treatment.

Botulism: One of the deadliest toxins caused by a bacteria. It can be inhaled or ingested. Severe botulism causes respiratory failure and paralysis.

Tularemia: Tularemia is a bacteria. It causes non-lethal diseases that are extremely incapacitating such as weight loss, fever, headaches and often pneumonia.

What type of chemical agents are out there?

Chemical agents include nerve agents, toxins, mustard agents and others. Two well-known nerve agents are VX and sarin. Nerve agents affect the transmission of nerve impulses in the nervous system. Symptoms depend on the concentration of dosage and can range from mild poisoning to death. There are both preventive antidotes as well as antidotes that can work if given to the victim in time.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons offers more information on nerve agents.

What countries have biological warfare programs?

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, more than ten countries have, or are developing biological warfare programs. According to the Office of Technology Assessment and U.S. Senate committee hearings, the number is about 17 and includes: Russia, Israel, Egypt, China, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and North Korea.

What is the Biological Weapons Convention?

It is the 1972 multi-lateral treaty that bans offensive biological weapons. The goal of the treaty was total elimination of weapon systems; however, defensive work is allowed. By mid-1996, 137 countries had signed the treaty.

(In 1973, the Chemical Weapons Convention was drafted. As of early 1996, 160 countries had signed this treaty.)

What is the history of the United States' biological warfare program?

The United States' program began during World War II and the government developed and produced a number of biological weapons. The program culminated in a large series of successful aerosol tests in the Pacific Ocean in 1969. This all came to a halt at the end of 1969, when President Richard Nixon reviewed the program (which had not been reviewed in 15 years) and concluded the program was wrong for the United States. He not only terminated the program, but ordered the destruction of all weapons. Part of the reasoning was that the United States already had a nuclear deterrent; therefore, it wasn't necessary to develop biological weapons that would make it possible for other countries, including non-state entities, to develop them.

When did the United States realize that the former Soviet Union had an offensive biological program?

In the early 1970s some U.S. officials, particularly in the intelligence community, suspected there was a Soviet program. After an unusual anthrax outbreak in 1979 in Sverdlovsk, USSR, the existence of such of program was debated within the international scientific/intelligence communities for almost a decade. Not until after the defection of Dr. Valdimir Paschenick in 1989, and inspections by joint U.S.-British teams in 1991, did the West conclude the Russians definitely had amassed a significant bioweapons program.

What does it take to make a bio-weapon?

If it is a bacteria, once there is access to the agent itself (seed stock), growing it is not that difficult. However, if it's a virus, growing it is harder and requires training. The hardest part is obtaining the seed stock and then once there is a large quantity of the agent, figuring out how to disseminate it as a stable aerosol that a human being will breathe in. The technological challenges of creating an aerosol of this kind are significant, but they're not so high that an individual or a small group of people couldn't do it.

What is the most scary incident to date of biological or chemical terrorism?

On March 20, 1995 the religious cult, Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) released sarin gas into the Tokyo subway system. Aum members had placed small containers in the trains filled with sarin gas that they then punctured during morning rush hour. Twelve people died and over 5,000 were injured. Due to the poor quality of the sarin gas and the inadequate delivery system, the casualty rate was low for a subway system that handles five million riders each day. Aum Shinrikyo was founded in 1987 by Shoko Asahara. The group had actively developed both biological and chemical weapons and are suspected of running smaller tests on the population before the subway attack.

How easy is it to transport biological weapons across the borders of countries?

Very easy. For example, a small amount of biological agent can be hidden in a pen and carried in a coat pocket.

What is the United States doing about this threat?

Although there is a tremendous amount of activity that is going on around the issue of bio-terrorism in the United States, some members of the medical and public health community are concerned about the lack of vaccines, antibiotics and local planning. Of particular concern is local planning, because it will be the local emergency rooms and doctor offices that will first deal with a biological attack and it could take days before any determination is made on what is actually happening. Many officials feel local emergency and health care workers are not prepared to handle such a disaster.

The U.S. has added funding to the Dept. of Defense's budget to deal with biological and chemical weapon threats--money for research and development of protective clothing for military personnel; providing instruction and training for local communities (about 120 cities are involved with training of their first responders to a biological or chemical attack); and developing biological identification detection units.

What does the United States need to do?

The U.S. needs to improve its ability to detect suspicious disease outbreaks and to identify those disease outbreaks as biological weapons attack. The emergency response personnel must have the training and equipment in order to mount a prompt and effective medical response.

The U.S. also needs to improve its ability to track down the perpetrators. This means increasing intelligence capabilities and doing a better job looking for the signatures of improvised weapons programs, and looking for people who are buying respirators, aerosolization equipment, low-scale fermenters or pathogenic agents.

The U.S. also needs to develop and produce medicines and vaccines to treat victims and/or potential victims.

Is there a danger in the fact that the number of biotechnology scientists in the world is increasing?

Some experts feel this is a factor in the growing concern about a bio-terrorist attack. Most of the materials and technologies used to make such weapons are readily available for commercial purposes around the world. It doesn't take a lot of money. However, it does take someone with knowledge to put these things together to make a potent weapon.

Are there any vaccines or antidotes that can be given to the American population?

No. For example, in the United States today, there is somewhere between seven and ten million doses of the smallpox vaccine. Some of it may be in a condition that is not effective. There is no capability in this country today to manufacture smallpox vaccine, because after the World Health Organization declared the disease eradicated in 1980, it was determined that it was no longer necessary to produce and administer the vaccine. Today, it would require an incredible effort to even hope that the U.S. could have enough vaccine in the next two to three years.


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