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