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U.S. Bioterror - A Matter of Time?

The overriding question is whether the U.S. is “ready” for a bioterror attack. The answer could well rely on the “other” question of what bio-agent and what’s the source? In 1991, 40,000 Russian scientists dispersed throughout the world, with knowledge of what the U.S.S.R. was doing in chemical and biological weapons. The question is to whom did they sell their knowledge? Some believe former Soviet scientists sold technology to countries like Iran, Syria, and North Korea. Lurking is the spectre of al-Qaeda, a group that the Pentagon says continues to pursue biological weapons.

Another scenario is an outbreak of a pandemic. How would the U.S. deal with an infectious disease outbreak? The picture, despite reassurances, is not pretty. Until now, the U.S. has experienced two major biological attacks.

In 1984, the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers attempted to take over the town of Dalles, Oregon by contaminating salad bars in the town. In 2001, there was the as yet unsolved mystery of the anthrax letters that killed five people.

But the question of bioterrorism extends to potential threats against our food supply and our clean water resources. It also extends to the threat of outbreaks of diseases in our animals populations. Here, the concern are diseases that attack animals but that can jump to humans. These are referred to as zoonotic diseases. The World Health Organization defines zonnotic diseases as:

Any disease and/or infection which is naturally “transmissible from vertebrate animals to man” is classified as a zoonosis according to the PAHO publication “Zoonoses and communicable diseases common to man and animals”. Over 200 zoonoses have been described and they are known since many centuries. They involve all types of agents: bacteria, parasites, viruses and unconventional agents.

There should more in time on the subject of animal to human transfer of diseases. However, looking at two examples, you can get an idea of the importance of dealing with zoonotic diseases. The first is a thing called Chronic Wasting Disease.

CWD is a contagious neurological disease affecting deer, elk and moose. It causes a characteristic spongy degeneration of the brains of infected animals resulting in emaciation, abnormal behavior, loss of bodily functions and death.

If it wasn’t an issue, there wouldn’t be such strong warnings for hunters.

Another example is a disease called Brucellosis. In the case of Brucellocis, there is a current outbreak in Yellowstone Park that is leading to the killing of animals suspected of being infected to prevent them from leaving the Park.

So the real problem that we face is not whether or when, but what and how (will we respond to an outbreak).