The University Record, October 15, 2001

How real is the biochemical threat?

By Lesley Harding

As the investigation into the three Florida anthrax cases continues, the FBI says U.S. water supplies could be “a logical target for a possible terrorist attack,” although authorities are unaware of any possible threats.

“Many countries have biological and chemical weapons. If places like Iran and some of the former Soviet Union countries can have bio-warfare programs, why not terrorists, as well,” says Philip Hanna, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology.

The nation remains on heightened alert in regard to bioterrorism. The Florida health department has tested 770 people linked to the American Media Inc., a building where Bob Stevens, who died of anthrax, worked. Another employee is hospitalized in good condition. A third employee exposed to anthrax has returned to work. The incident has prompted building closures around the country where people have reported suspicious substances.

Anthrax threats in Washtenaw County and other communities in Southeast Michigan last week were false alarms.

Michigan Department of Community Health Chief Medical Executive David R. Johnson said it is important for citizens to proceed with reasonable precautions and not panic when opening mail and packages.

Anthrax exposure through the mail is extremely unlikely and symptoms of anthrax do not develop in a matter of hours. Even if someone has found a letter or package with a threatening note or large quantity of powdery substance, in the absence of illness there is no need to go directly to the hospital for anthrax treatment or testing. If someone finds a letter or package with a threatening note or large quantity of powdery substance and properly contacts local law enforcement, public health authorities will then be able to notify individuals if exposure has been confirmed and treatment is required.

“Anthrax is very hard for people to contract,” says Hanna. “There is a mild skin form that’s self-healing in most instances even without antibiotics.”

But, inhalation anthrax—at one time known as wool sorters disease—is lethal if not treated with antibiotics in its early stages. Anthrax is a bacterium with an incubation period of seven to 60 days. Without treatment, 90 percent of its victims die within days of showing symptoms.

“It’s really hard to identify the symptoms,” says Hanna. “Victims have flu-like symptoms, muscle aches, and they’re tired and have headaches. Not everyone who is exposed comes down with it.”

Hanna says there was an outbreak in Sverdlovsk, Russia, in the late 1970s. Anthrax spores were in the air vents of a military vacination center, and 60 people died. But in the U.S., only 18 inhalation cases have been documented in the 20th century.

Although anthrax is a bacterium, it cannot be spread person to person. It is an airborne disease. “Once the anthrax spores hit the ground, they can’t get re-airborne and are ineffective,” says Hanna. Wind and weather conditions would have to be just right to spread this disease through means such as a crop dusting airplane.

Hanna warns that anthrax isn’t the only potentially deadly biological weapon. The smallpox virus can be just as lethal, but unlike anthrax, it’s extremely contagious. “Smallpox couldn’t survive in a bomb format,” says Hanna, “but someone carrying the virus could get on a subway and spread it from person to person.” U.S. citizens are given vaccinations to ward off smallpox, but Hanna says vaccine stockpiles have lapsed. The last known smallpox case was more than 10 years ago.