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Bioterrorism: Questions and Answers

There are some Americans who are concerned that another terrorist attack on this country could involve biological or chemical weapons. Michael Osterholm, PhD, is an infectious disease specialist at the University of Minnesota. He spoke with the Early Show about what we need to know about bioterrorism and how prepared America is--or isn't--to deal with it.

Osterholm is the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and co-author of Living Terrors: What America Needs to Know to Survive the Coming Bioterrorist Catastrophe.

The events of September 11th showed America that we are vulnerable to massive terrorist attacks. Now many are wondering what other forms these attacks could take in the future. In particular, concerns about bioterrorism have increased significantly. For example, the federal government now has lifted the ban imposed earlier this week on crop-dusters flying. This had been put in place because they were fearful that terrorists would use the planes to carry out chemical or biological warfare.

How great is the threat of biological warfare happening here in the US?

Osterholm says that we need to face the fact that this is a reality. Whether or not crop-dusters are allowed to fly is not the issue. And what happened on September 11th, while it was a tragic event, is not the reason to be concerned. He says that experts have been talking about this for a long time. All of this was reported in his book, which came out a year ago. What is fundamentally different is that we now know that catastrophic acts of terrorism can occur on our soil.

He says that we have to ask ourselves, "What is to keep any group from undertaking it?" In reality, biological warfare is no more complicated than box cutters, and those brought down the World Trade Center.

He adds that it could happen any time, anywhere. No place is more or less at risk, he says.

How limited is our understanding of this issue?

Osterholm says that most people's understanding is extremely limited. And he's very concerned about that--especially about the fact that even our lawmakers don't seem to have a grasp of the situation.

What is the difference between biological warfare and chemical warfare?Osterholm says that we don't understand that bioterrorism is very different from chemical terrorism. Chemical warfare is disseminated in the air: It is inhaled or transferred through skin contact. It has what's called a "limited footprint"--only covering a city block or two. The response to this type of attack will be immediate. In the most recent attack, a cult killed a dozen commuters on a Tokyo subway with nerve gas in 1995.

Biological is more complicated and takes longer for the results to show up. You don't even know you've been hit. It doesn't take all that long to show up, but there is a delay and every second counts. Early detection and responsis critical.

This is especially true with anthrax, which can have an incubation of anywhere from 2 to 50 to 60 days and is almost 100% fatal if not treated immediately. But in contrast smallpox has a 9- to 10-day incubation period and is 30% fatal, but it is also easily transferred to other people.

What can ordinary citizens do? Osterholm says they should contact their legislatures and tell them not to leave this piece out of the action they decide to take. Out of the $40 billion allocated by the federal government only $121 million going to this issue. That's like using a garden hose to try and put out a forest fire. What if we bought numerous new, shiny fire trucks but only had three firefighters?

Who has this technology, and will they use it?Osterholm says that there are at least 17 nations that have biological warfare in their arsenal of weapons. According to him, the "bad guys" know we're not ready to deal with it.

What about thrush to buy gas masks and "hazmat" suits? Will that protect people?Osterholm says there's no point in doing that--unless you plan to wear them 24 hours a day--even in the shower.

What do you think should be done?He says that he is "not trying to scare people out of their wits, but into them." He wants people to be aware of what is at risk and what needs to be done. He sees this time as an opportunity, but he only hopes we get a chance to respond in the right way. Otherwise bad policy may be made.

He says that we need to

  • Have a large amount of vaccines developed and stockpiled.
  • Bolster planning at the local and state level.
  • Create infrastructure for how to do surveillance--a more comprehensive approach.
  • Talk about how the healthcare system would handle something like this. In his words, we have cut healthcare down to the bone and we are now gnawing at the calcium.

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