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Bioterrorism

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Bioterrorism is terrorism using germ warfare, an intentional human release of a naturally-occurring or human-modified toxin or biological agent.

The term is difficult to objectively define since there are varying definitions of biowar, biodefense, biosecurity, and also varying definitions of terrorism itself. Accordingly, it is perhaps better to refer to 'incidents' rather than 'attacks' and to restrict the term to current rather than historical events.

Biological agents are usually dispersed by an aerosol spray (inhaled or ingested). The main difficulty in mounting an attack is to disperse the agent in a manner that would infect large numbers of people. For example, in dispersing an aerosol, one would have to ensure that the particles would be of exactly the right size, otherwise the particles would quickly leave the atmosphere before moving far from the source or remain in the atmosphere and be diluted before having a chance to infect people. Furthermore, an aerosol that is too large or small would be filtered by the respiratory system either before it reached the lungs or exhaled if it did.

Biological agents used as weapons usually have an incubation period of several days before any symptoms appear.

Contents

Types of biological agents

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Category A agents

These are biological agents with both a high potential for adverse public health impact and that also have a serious potential for large-scale dissemination. The Category A agents are anthrax, smallpox, plague, botulism, tularemia, and viral hemorrhagic fevers.

Anthrax 
Anthrax is a bacterium with a highly resistant spore form. It is highly infectious and lethal when inhaled. It is a non-contagious disease which does not spread from one person to another. An anthrax vaccine does exist but requires many injections and has enough side effects that it is considered unsuitable for general use.
 Letter sent to   containing 'weaponised'  powder which caused the deaths of two postal workers during the  in the
Enlarge
Letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle containing 'weaponised' anthrax powder which caused the deaths of two postal workers during the 2001 anthrax attacks in the USA
Smallpox 
Smallpox is a highly contagious virus. It transmits easily through the atmosphere and has a high mortality rate (up to 30%). Smallpox was eliminated in the world in the 1970s, thanks to a worldwide vaccination program. However, some virus samples are still available in Russian and American laboratories. It is also believed it could be available in other labs.
Botulism 
Botulism is one the deadliest toxins caused by a bacterium. Botulism causes respiratory failure and paralysis.
Ebola 
Ebola is a viral hemorrhagic fever. It is extremely lethal, with no cure. The symptoms are profuse bleeding from all orifices.
Plague 
Plague is a disease caused by any one of several highly contagious bacteria. It can be a type of pneumonia and may be fatal.
Marburg 
Marburg is a viral hemorrhagic fever. It is extremely lethal, with no cure.
Tularemia 
Tularemia is a bacteria, responsible for non-lethal but extremely incapacitating diseases (weight loss, fever, headaches, and often pneumonia).

Category B agents

Category B agents are moderately easy to disseminate and have low mortality rates.

Category C agents

Category C agents are pathogens that might be engineered for mass dissemination because they are easy to produce and have potential for high morbidity or mortality (examples: Nipah virus, hantavirus and multi-drug resistant Tuberculosis (MTB)).

Biological warfare programmes and convention on biological weapons

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The United States' biological warfare programme began during World War II. But, it came to a halt in 1969, when President Nixon reviewed the program, decided it was wrong, and ordered the destruction of all weapons. Part of the decision was due to the availability of a nuclear defense, which, it was thought, made it unnecessary to develop biological weapons since it would make it possible for other countries to develop them as well.

Today, several countries have or are developing biological warfare programmes. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, more than ten countries are suspected to have continuing biological warfare programs, including Russia, Israel, China, Iran, Libya, Syria and North Korea. Offensive programs Iraq have been disbanned since the first Gulf War.

Offensive biological weapons were banned by the 1972 multi-lateral treaty. The goal of the treaty was to eliminated biological weapon systems. In 1996, 137 countries had signed the treaty.

Modern bioterrorist incidents

In 1984, followers of the Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh attempted to control a local election by infecting salad bars in 10 restaurants with Salmonella typhimurium in the small town of The Dalles, Oregon, The attack caused about 751 people to get sick (no fatalities). This incident was the first known bioterrorist attack in the United States in the 20th century.

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Planning and reacting to a bioterrorist attack

Planning may involve the development of biological identification systems.

Until recently in the United States of America, most biological defense strategies have been geared to protecting soldiers on the battlefield rather than ordinary people in cities. Financial cutbacks have limited the tracking of disease outbreaks. Some, like food poisoning due to E. coli or Salmonella, could be natural or deliberate.

In Europe, disease surveillance is beginning to be organised on the continent-wide scale needed to track a biological emergency. In addition of monitoring sick people, it is thought interesting to track whether a disease is due to natural outbreaks or deliberate attack. For example, a natural variety of anthrax occurs in southern Africa.

Researchers are experimenting with devices to detect the existence of a threat:

  • tiny electronic chips that would contain living nerve cells to warn of the presence of bacterial toxins (identification of broad range toxins)
  • fibre-optic tube lined with antibodies coupled to light-emitting molecules (identification of specific pathogens, such as anthrax, botulinum, ricin)

Plants as sensors

Very recently, public research has been approved to set up some genetically modified plants that could, in an immediate future, being made profitable to alert the population and the authorities in the event of chemical or biological attack. These new plants specifically modified would change color in contact with certain chemical elements, or biological agents, likely to be used at the time of possible terrorist attacks. The plants — opportunely placed in public places — would lose their green color quickly, thus setting off the alarm.

Arguments given to justify this option is that people are used to plants much more than to chemical sensors and the use in public places would not worry the population. Another argument is that these GMO sentinels could be deployed on vast geographical areas and their system of detection could be introduced into the evergreen trees and the algae of the watery zones, making it possible for satellites to supervise and perceive any change of color due to an hostile agent.

Reaction involves

  • setting up local emergency rooms and offices to immediately deal with the outcome in case of an attack
  • instruction and training for local communities
  • protective clothing for military personnel
  • tracking down of people buying materials involved in biological warfare

Once the biological agent has been identified, it can be fought through vaccination of people before they are exposed. However, vaccines are not considered to be a perfect solution. A bioterrorist could develop novel, possibly artificial, pathogens against which conventional vaccines would be useless.

Consequently, some suggest that it would be interesting to look for ways of developing vaccines quickly enough for them to be created, mass-produced and distributed after an attack. This could involve progress in DNA sequencing so that an unknown pathogen's genes could be known very quickly. The resulting sequences could help in the development of an instant DNA vaccine.

Another major issue with vaccines is that they often have side-effects which are sometimes lethal, and hence a massive innoculation program may result in deaths and illness which would be unnecessary if no biological attack occurs. This issue has a particular with the smallpox and anthrax vaccines.

Making the vaccine is not the totality of the solution. It is rather easy to order soldiers to take the vaccine, but immunizing the population is not, in particular with a vaccine making people sick, with all the controversies already going around vaccination.

For these reasons, some feel that researchers should concentrate on ways to treat victims of biological weapons. For example, Ebola kills people by inducing a widespread inflammatory reaction (similar to toxic shock syndrome). This could be fought by a new and very powerful anti-inflammatory drug.

See also

External links

es:Bioterrorismo fr:Bioterrorisme

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