Biological hazards and bioterrorism

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Biological Hazards and Bioterrorism

     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 bioterrorism agents.
     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 terrorism purposes.
     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:
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:

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