Everyday we are exposed to hazards
in the world around us. With the anthrax scares that followed the attacks of September
11, 2001, we are more aware of possible bioterrorist attacks and the
biological hazards they produce. Other than anthrax, some of the diseases
that could be used as biological weapons are tularemia, smallpox, botulism,
and plague. In this paper, I will discuss three of these possible
The first agent is anthrax. Anthrax is a
disease caused by the bacteria Bacillus anthracis. Anthrax is usually found
in wild and domestics animals, such as cattle, sheep, and goats. Humans can
be infected with this disease if they are exposed to an infected animal. When
these animals die, the spores of Bacillus anthracis may remain in the soil
for many years. Dry spores can be man-made for biological warfare or
There are three ways to contract anthrax and
each has its own set of symptoms. Symptoms of each usually appear about seven
days after exposure. Cutaneous anthrax is most common form. Cutaneous anthrax
occurs when the bacteria enter through a cut in the skin. The first sign
resembles an insect bite that is raised and itchy. The bump then turns into a
vesicle after a day or two and then turns into a painless ulcer. The ulcer is
typically 1-3cm in diameter and a black, dead center. Adjacent lymph nodes
may swell. If left untreated about 20% of those infected will die. Death is
rare if treatment is administered.
The next type is inhalation anthrax. The
symptoms of this may resemble a cold. Symptoms then progress to shock and
extremely difficult breathing. Within two days, death usually occurs.
Typically, this form of anthrax is fatal. The final form is intestinal
anthrax that may result from eating undercooked, tainted meat. The result is
an inflamed intestinal tract. Symptoms of this are nausea, loss of appetite,
abdominal pain, vomiting of blood, severe diarrhea and fever. 25-60% of these
cases result in death. Because of the very low rate of transmission from one
human to another, there isn’t a serious threat of a country-wide epidemic.
Every person would have to be exposed to the spores. Vaccines are used to
treat those infected and are required for many military personnel.
The second agent that could possibly be used in
bioterrorism is smallpox. Smallpox is caused by the variola virus. Routine
vaccines against smallpox were last administered in 1972 and the disease was
completely wiped out by 1977. Smallpox does still exist in labs around the
world though. Russia still has a facility that could produce tons of smallpox
each year and is still researching more toxic strains. If smallpox were used
as a biological weapon today, it would be a major threat to the United States. Smallpox has a fatality rate of about 30% or more. Even those who had the
vaccine over 20 years ago are still susceptible to the disease, as they have
not gotten updated booster shots.
Smallpox can easily be spread from person to
person by a cough or sneeze. The virus can also be transmitted through
contaminated clothing and linens. After exposure, there is about a two week
incubation period before the onset of symptoms. Symptoms of smallpox are high
fever, headache and backache. Severe abdominal pain and delirium may also be
present. A rash will appear, first in the mouth, pharynx, face, forearms, and
will then spread to the trunk and legs. In a day or two, the rash becomes
vesicular and thee usually becomes a pustule. The pustules are round, and
deep. Scabs will begin to form after a week or so. The scab usually leaves
pitted, colorless scars. There is no known cure for small pox.
The third and final biological hazard I will
discuss is plague. Plague is caused by a bacteria called Yersinia pestis. The
bacteria is usually carried by rats and wild rodents. Although the last
rat-borne epidemic was over 75 years ago, there are still rare outbreaks from
contact with contaminated wild rodents or fleas. In the 1980’s, the United
States experienced about 18 outbreaks per year and only 1 in every 7 died.
Most of those infected have been bit by an infected animal or by inhaling
droplets. Transmission between humans is uncommon.
The first infection will be bubonic plague. If
a person is exposed to the bacteria, within 2 to 6 days the person may begin
to develop a fever and headache. Then, the lymph nodes known as bubo will
swell, and become very painful. Plague spreads rapidly and will move into the
bloodstream and cause plague septicemia. From there the disease may spread to
the lungs and lead to plague pneumonia. Once plague reaches this stage the
death rate is over 50%. Pneumatic plague is also the most easily spread
through coughing and sneezing. Plague is treatable through drug therapy and
antibiotics, but treatment needs to begin as soon as possible.
Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies. (Johns Hopkins University) (2002). [On-line]. Available: http://www.hopkins-biodefense.org
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2002). [On-line]. Available:
Smallpox as a Biological Weapon. Journal of the American Medical Association
(JAMA). Vol. 281, No. 22 (June 9, 1999), pp. 2127-2137.
Gay, Kathlyn. Silent Death : The Threat of Chemical and Biological Terrorism.
Twenty-First Century Books, Brookfield, Conn., 2001.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2002). [On-line]. Available: