Fears of Global Ebola Outbreak Spread Across Continents is a recent headline that revealed a growing sense of panic regarding the current Ebola outbreak emergency. Every so often, events occur to remind us of the potentially disastrous consequences of biological pathogens. In the 1980’s, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) emerged as the primary scourge, killing 39 million worldwide. The onset in 2003 of the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) — also known as bird flu – and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) caused widespread concern over the possibility of new lethal pandemics. But the Ebola virus has significantly increased the nation’s anxiety level.
While these disease outbreaks are natural occurrences and the primary focus is on safety, medical care and disease prevention, the threat of highly pathogenic biological agents being misapplied by terrorists is a grave concern.
Biological materials including cadavers, animal carcasses and contagions have been used for warfare and terror as far back as 600 BC. Toward the end of the last century, events illustrated bioterrorism could represent a potential threat to the US homeland. Iraq and several other nations had developed extensive bioweapon programs. Members of the Japanese religious sect Aum Shinrikyo attempted to unleash bioterror agents against six targets. And Al Qaeda built laboratories, recruited microbiologists, trained members in bioterror and disseminated literature on bioweapons development.
In October 2001, anthrax-contaminated letters were mailed to select US citizens, resulting in five deaths and 17 seriously ill. During this incident – known as Amerithrax – Americans obtained about 10,000 additional prescriptions per day for the antibiotic Ciprofloxacin, reflecting their disproportionate fear of exposure. The concept of invisible and highly disseminated lethal weapons is unsettling, especially since an accidental or intentional release of highly pathogenic biological agents could lead to catastrophic loss of life. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has estimated an intentional release of anthrax by a bioterrorist in a major city could result in an economic impact of up to $26 billion per 100,000 persons exposed.
To read the complete report in the Feb./March Homeland Security Today, click here.
Robert E. Smith is the senior scientist at Communications Resource, Inc., where he specializes in biosecurity for laboratories and support for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative. He also manages emergency preparedness and homeland security programs for federal contracts and developed federal criteria for analyzing laboratory compliance with the Select Agent Rule, and assessed chemical weapon detection systems for subway systems.