For centuries, disease has been used as a weapon; a strategically placed corpse infected with the plague can bring down an enemy's village in a matter of weeks. Nowadays, with all that modern technology has to offer, deadly viruses and bacteria can be easily engineered in sufficient quantities to bring down adversaries on a much grander scale. Crops, livestock, water, milk and air can become contaminated in one fell swoop to sicken, impair and kill masses in just a matter of weeks.
Although many governments have agreed to stop developing, producing or stockpiling bioweapons, lethal biological agents can be found in labs worldwide. And it's not just governments that acquire bioweapons and architect attacks; rogue saboteurs don't need many resources to carry out attacks. That's because many deadly pathogens exist in nature and can be easily and cheaply cultivated without the aid of high-tech laboratories. That puts the government, the public and public health officials in a precarious position of constant heightened alert for a bioterror attack.
Some pathogens are particularly good weapons because they are highly infective and can fly under the radar to infect and sicken many before the cause is known. It may take days or weeks before an attack is confirmed, enough time for many people die before treatment can be administered.
You may not be able to prevent an attack, or know that you have been infected, but being mindful of symptoms and proactively reporting them to officials may save your life and the lives of many others.
The government has practices in place to protect and prepare the public. But it may not be in time to save some victims.
Here are a few notable pathogens used as bioweapons.
Anthrax is a disease caused by the bacteria Bacillus anthracis. These bacteria have developed a unique survival mechanism that allows them reproduce asexually via spores. The spores are hardy and can survive in soil for months, even years, in extreme weather conditions. Typically, anthrax develops in animals when they come in contact with dormant spores living in the soil while grazing. When spores are inhaled or ingested they become activated and alive again.
Humans acquire the anthrax infection by direct skin contact with the spores, by eating infected animals or breathing in spores (human to human infection is not likely). Anthrax that has been prepared as a bioweapon is dense with spores and looks like white powder. You may remember the 2001 anthrax attack that killed 5 people when they inhaled spores mailed through the US Postal Service.
While an anthrax vaccine is available, it is only routinely given to people at high exposure risk such as military personnel and scientists working with the organism. Infections are treated with antibiotics.
Symptoms of anthrax occur anywhere from a few hours to 7 days after exposure.
- If inhaled: flu-like symptoms - fever, aches, fatigue, nonproductive cough, chest discomfort, breathing difficulties, sweating, and blue lips and extremities
- If eaten: nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting, fever, abdominal pain, vomiting of blood, and severe diarrhea
- If on skin: itching, depressed black scar, redness and swelling
The plague is caused by the bacteria Yesinia pestis and is found on rodents and their fleas. There are two types; pneumonic plague where the bacteria enter the lungs via air droplets from close contact with an infected person or animal, and bubonic plague that enters the blood stream via infected fleas.
Symptoms of the inhaled plague occur 2-3 days after exposure and up to 10 days if bloodborne. They include:
- If inhaled: Fever, headache, weakness, shortness of breath, chest pain, cough, and bloody or watery sputum
- If in blood: Flea bites, malaise, fever, painful lymph nodes
Botulism is a foodborne illness caused by a toxin made by Clostridium botulinum bacteria. While minute amounts may be therapeutic when they paralyze isolated muscles for neuromuscular diseases, contaminating the food supply with Clostridium spores can be a public health disaster of monumental proportions. Paralysis and death come fast and furious when the muscles that control breathing shut down.
Symptoms of botulism occur within hours or days after eating contaminated food.
- Double or blurred vision
- Drooping eyelids
- Slurred speech
- Difficulty swallowing
- Dry mouth
- Muscle weakness (migrating from face to legs)
- Difficulty breathing
Federal, state, and local authorities are charged with monitoring bioterrorism threats and notifying the public once an attack has been established. If all the systems are working properly, authorities will notify the medical community, and make a public statement to let you know if your geographic area is in danger and where you should go to if you should become sick.
Here are some proactive steps you can take.
- Stay connected to your state's department of health to follow disease trends occurring in your community
- Follow disaster preparedness advice from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Homeland Security
- Sign up for e-mail, Twitter or Facebook alerts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- Register for Reverse 911(c) a telephonic community notification system (if available) through your local community or county
- Tune in to local TV and radio programming for health officials' announcements and heed to warnings
- Learn how to recognize and handle a suspicious package
- Create a family disaster plan and prepare an emergency disaster supplies kit for your entire family that includes a 3-day supply of water (1 gallon of water per day per person), nonperishable foods and medicines
- Practice good hygiene to avoid spreading germs and cover your mouth and noses with fabric if exposed
To see if your jurisdiction is prepared for a bioterrorism attack check the American College Of Emergency Physician's The National Report Card on the State of Emergency Medicine.
For more tips on emergency preparedness by Dr. Leigh Vinocur, click here .