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Biological and Chemical Warfare: How Scared Should We Be?

The September 11th terrorist attacks have made a nervous country ask, "What next?" There has been a run on the antibiotic Cipro and gas masks. A terrorist attack with germs, chemicals, or nuclear materials is now being feared by many Americans.

Americans are also buying water purifiers, antibiotics, and survival manuals. The purchases are coming amid fears that terrorists may have been planning chemical or biological attacks, in addition to the September 11th attacks. The demand is obvious on Web sites that sell survivalist gear or literature. On eBay, new Israeli gas masks are going for more than $150. On, the number 2 best-selling book was about germ warfare. Some pharmacies have reported a run on the antibiotic Cipro in case of a bioterrorism attack. Many experts say the run on emergency equipment may reassure, but it's unnecessary.

Heeding stern warnings that the United States could face attacks involving biological or chemical weapons, state, local, and federal authorities are scrambling to identify potential threats and prepare for them. "A lot of attention is being paid to preparedness," said one senior representative to the 16-agency National Response Center, which handles any chemical or oil spills. "We have a long way to go. I think everybody's doing what they can," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity on Monday on the sidelines of a conference on weapons of mass destruction.

The meeting, attended by more than 100 experts and federal, state, and local authorities, came on the heels of warnings on Sunday. The warning was from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other top US officials that the United States was still vulnerable to attack following the Septe ber 11 assault that left more than 5,700 people dead or missing.

Rumsfeld said the United States knew that some nations with proven links to militant groups already had developed chemical or biological agents for use as weapons, and it was possible that some of the nations would assist extremist groups in obtaining those capabilities. Experts on Monday said agroterrorism posed an additional threat that had hardly been discussed or assessed at all and that would be particularly difficult to avert.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson insisted (on 60 Minutes) on Sunday that the United States was ready to deal with a germ or chemical attack. He said eight secret US government staging areas were poised to respond to such an attack. Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating lauded the federal response but said the first people to respond to any bioterrorism incident were ill equipped to deal with such an attack. "At this juncture, with all due respect, I think most doctors, most nurses, most emergency management specialists at the state level really don't know what to expect or how to respond and that should be of concern to everybody," Keating said.

Sharon Belgey, Early Show guest and senior [Scienc] editor at Newsweek, did an extensive piece in this week's issue entitled "How Scared Should You Be?"

Are we prepared for a chemical or biological attack?

The CIA has been warning about this for several years. The government is prepared in the near term. The government is working on a huge public coordination effort which encompasses training, doctors and nurses who can recognize signs, and report systems so we know where the outbreaks are taking place.

Should preparedness be at the government level or the individual level?

It's ridiculous for individuals to walk around in fear. People can't live like that. Cipro doesn't work unless you take it before the symptoms and you wouldn't know that, and no one can reasonably walk around with a gas mask 24-7. This hysteria is a mixture of people being totally unrealistic and naive.

What is the main difference between biological and chemical warfare?

Biological warfare ithe use of living organisms--pathogens and germs--which are alive and dangerous. Chemical warfare is the use of toxic compounds: Chemical agents are not contagious. You'd need more chemical weapons than biological weapons, but it's easier to get chemicals than biological weapons. So while they both pose a great threat, they both have an upside and a downside in terms of availability and accessibility.
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