Monday, October 8, 2001 Volume 67, Issue 33


 
 









 
Biological strike hard to counter

By Ed De La Garza
Daily Cougar Staff

The United States was put on guard Sept. 11.

The threat of a chemical or biological attack has never been more real, prompting the city to create a Houston Task Force on Terrorism. But as with any
potential strike, whether it is conventional, biological or chemical in nature, preventing such an attack and being ready for one are two different things.

"We have some idea of how to combat it," said Hugh Stephens, a retired UH political science professor. "But it's impossible if people distribute biological or
chemical weapons widely -- if they introduce it into the population."

It isn't the distribution or use of such weapons that unsettles people, it is the difficulty in recognizing when they have been used, Steven Blanke, an
assistant professor of biology and biochemistry, said.

"Anthrax is probably the most recognizable one," he said. "It has flu and pneumonia-like symptoms. Most physicians would not be looking for it. Once it
progresses to a certain stage, it can be difficult to reverse."

As evidenced by the report Friday of the death of a 63-year-old man in Florida as a result of contracting anthrax, diagnosing a case is just as difficult as
treating it. It is also difficult to determine when or where a person came into contact with the disease.

Anthrax can be spread in three different ways, Blanke said. Pulmonary anthrax is inhaled; gastrointestinal anthrax is ingested; the sub-cutaneous variety
enters the body through open wounds.

"The spores find their way to a conducive environment," Blanke said. "They become growing spores and spread throughout the body."

While Sunday's retaliatory attacks may have put the nation on heightened alert, the threat of biological or chemical warfare is not necessarily an immediate
one as much as it is latent, Stephens said.

"Houston's one of the cities involved in setting up a medical response team," he said. "Hermann and Ben Taub (hospitals) have been through an exercise.
There are things being done, but the apprehension is based on the potential for mass casualties."

Exercises have been the only means of preparing U.S. citizens for any potential outbreak of anthrax or the use of chemical weapons. Immediately
following the Sept. 11 attacks, military surplus supply stores in New York ran out of gas masks. But such devices only combat half the threat, Stephens
said.

"Gas masks are good for chemical, not biological warfare," he said.

In a press briefing last week by members of the Houston Task Force, Baylor College of Medicine President Dr. Ralph Feigin did not recommend that
members of the public purchase gas masks, because they use different canisters for different agents and require a thorough training period for proper use.

While combating an outbreak has been the focus of federal, state and local agencies, medical response exercises do nothing to prevent the use of
biochemical agents. Homeland defense and counterintelligence programs have been the focus of President George W. Bush and his administration.

Much attention has been placed on Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network of terrorists, but such a network may not be capable of developing
biological warfare -- at least not without help, Stephens said.

"It would have to be a state or government somewhere that would have the capacity (to produce chemical weapons)," Stephens said. "You have to have a
considerable amount of equipment. It takes a long time to gather materials -- it's not easy."

Though using and developing biological or chemical weapons is a tactic only state governments or well-structured organizations would be capable of
doing, the difficulty in addressing the threat comes from tracking the weapons, or agents used to manufacture them.

"The thing that makes it tough, is that it's not like storing an (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile)," Blanke said. "Storing an anthrax spore takes very little
space. Concealment is very easy compared to ballistic missiles. It can probably be spread and not known easily."

But the United States hasn't been kept out of the loop when it comes to determining which nations would have the capacity to create biological and
chemical weapons.

"There have been reports that both Iraq and Libya are in the chemical warfare business," Stephens said. "In terms of making them, they would have the
resources to make and distribute them. I think Iraq is one of the nations to watch. It's the major potential source of state-sponsored terrorism."

There were reports of Iraq using sarin gas, a deadly nerve agent, during its civil war with the Kurds. It was an act that promoted the United States to add
gas masks to its military forces' list of supplies during the Persian Gulf War.

The fear factor may have many Americans on an increased state of alert, but rather than running to military surpluses, people could be better helped by
being aware of what to look for should the threat of an anthrax outbreak become a reality.

"A lot of these biological agents start off looking just like the flu and pneumonia," Blanke said. "Try to learn about the symptomology of the diseases.
Educating yourself is the best way."
 
 
 

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