Biological strike hard
By Ed De La Garza
Daily Cougar Staff
The United States was put on guard Sept.
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,
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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."