Anthrax Suspected In Deaths
Of At Least 143 In Africa

WASHINGTON--Despite years of warnings from experts, the United States is poorly prepared to defend its armed forces from the rising threat of germ warfare and lags even more in protecting Americans at home, defense officials say.
As President Clinton and other leaders have been proclaiming the dangers of biological weapons, officials acknowledge that they are taking only the first steps to develop the high-technology gear, medicine and organization needed to respond to germ arsenals believed held by 16 nations and, perhaps, terrorist groups as well.
So far, the government deserves "a D or a C-minus" for its efforts, said one top defense official who declined to be identified. "We have a long way to go."
In Los Angeles County, for example, officials got basic briefings from the Pentagon only last month on how to handle germ attacks and are a long way from training the 49,000 medical, fire and police personnel who might have some role if an attack occurs.
Governments have lagged in preparing for such a possibility because, until recently, they have deemed the odds against an attack simply too long to justify the cost of preparation.
And even now, the threat should not be overstated. While almost any biochemistry major can create germ cultures, it is difficult to turn them into weapons that work. Partly because of this, most terrorist groups have shown little interest in germ weapons--certainly far less than in car bombs or conventional explosives, authorities say.
Yet the odds of an attack have been steadily rising, and authorities have begun speaking out on the growing risks as they have made new preparations to deal with them.
Recently, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen announced that all 2.4 million active-duty and reserve troops will be inoculated against anthrax, a deadly bacterium. And last spring, he shifted $500 million to the Pentagon's five-year budget for defense against biological and chemical attacks.
In November, an expert defense advisory group urged the Pentagon to sharply step up efforts to provide a stronger "homeland" defense against germ and chemical attacks. During a recent TV appearance, Cohen used a 5-pound bag to
emphasize a warning that such a quantity of a biological agent could wipe out half of the 600,000 people in Washington. While federal authorities do not believe that the time has come for mass vaccination of U.S. citizens, they and outside experts acknowledge that governments have more to do.
Vaccination of all U.S. active-duty and reserve troops against anthrax is a valuable step, most experts agree, because such a move will protect soldiers and sailors from all but the most intense exposures. A defense against anthrax is prudent, they say, because the agent is by far the easiest and most inexpensive to use. But vaccines for other agents, and a long-discussed "universal" germ warfare vaccine, are probably years away.
Experts have taken long strides since the Persian Gulf War in developing ways to detect germ attack. A laser-based detection system mounted on a Blackhawk helicopter can identify a threatening cloud of a biological agent at a distance of 18 miles.
Two months ago, the Army fielded a new system that can identify a germ agent in as little as 20 minutes. It may take years, however, to develop the most valuable tool: a detector that can quickly discover and identify an agent when it has been released.

In addition, officials say that despite infusions of cash, the military needs far more resources. The armed forces now have two rapid-response teams on 24-hour alert to help handle such disasters at home or abroad: the Marine Corps' Chemical Biological Incidence Response Team and the Army's Technical Escort Unit. Yet officials acknowledge that with their few hundred personnel, these teams would be stretched thin in the event of a major disaster.
Some experts also argue that the United States needs to improve its on-the-ground spying to find out which nations are preparing germ arsenals--something spy satellites can't do well.
In addition, troops need more training in reacting to battlefield germ attacks. "It takes time to integrate it into battlefield use," said Zachary Selden, an analyst at Business Executives for National Security, a private group in Washington. Despite the challenges, the military'sNAIROBI (Reuters) - Scientists in Kenya are trying to establish whether the anthrax bacteria is responsible for an epidemic in North Eastern province that has killed at least 143 people in three months.
``We are trying to put the priority on ruling out anthrax. Anthrax is what we suspect is the cause,'' on Saturday said Peter Tukei, a medical doctor and senior virologist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute.
The aid agency Amref also said it was testing blood and stool samples in an attempt to to rule out anthrax as a leading suspect for the disease.
At least 143 people have died in North Eastern province since October, at the start of severe flooding linked to the El Nino climatic phenomenon.
Newspapers reported on Saturday a further 28 people had been killed by the disease in North Eastern province's Garissa district in the last 24 hours.
Regional government officials earlier blamed a strain of malaria for the epidemic.
Victims have complained of a variety of symptoms including vomiting, diarrhoea and severe headaches.
The deadly anthrax bacteria, which usually affects slaughterhouse workers, spreads from the carcasses of animals to humans via contact.
Severe floods have increased the animal death toll, leading to possible contamination of humans forced to drink water infected by animal carcasses, Tukei told Reuters. He stressed it was not yet possible to give a definitive explanation for the disease.
The Atlanta-based Centre for Disease Control, the U.N. World Health Organisation and aid agencies are working with government health officials in an attempt to identify the disease.progress is far greater than that of civilian authorities.
Last month, Los Angeles-area officials became only the eighth municipal group to receive special Pentagon training on germ and chemical warfare. Pentagon officials say they have a list of 120 cities where training will be held, but it may be five years before that program is complete.
In Southern California, several hundred people from law enforcement, fire and medical organizations were briefed for four days on how to identify and safely react to germ and chemical attacks. Those authorities are in turn supposed to train 49,000 area personnel who might be asked to respond under such conditions.
But the process is moving slowly: Los Angeles area officials haven't received their materials for that additional training yet. Local officials are to be offered a chance to buy secondhand military protective gear and other equipment, but it isn't clear when that will happen.

Unlike chemical weapons, germ agents can take several days to sicken victims: The incubation period for anthrax, for example, is 72 hours. As a result, the first sign that an attack has occurred may be a huge surge of patients showing up in hospital emergency rooms.
At that point, authorities will be able to protect some people with antidotes, but many others will already be sick.
A number of experts have suggested setting up detectors at likely attack sites, such as subways, to give quick warning of attacks. But officials in some cities strongly oppose the idea, questioning the use of precious tax dollars for expensive sensors that not only might miss attacks if the airborne germs didn't drift past their immediate vicinity but also could not protect all possible targets. While concerns have been rising slowly for years, the first full alarms were sounded in 1995 when the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas in a Tokyo subway, killing 12 people and injuring about 5,500. The attack demonstrated that a terrorist group can acquire the know-how and materials to do widespread damage. Before that, the cult failed in four tries--using automobiles and an aerosol sprayer perched on a rooftop--to mount a germ attack. In the United States two years ago, the FBI nabbed a white supremacist who had ordered and received a sample of the bacteria that causes bubonic plague from a scientific mail-order house in Rockville, Md. Another group, in Minnesota, was convicted of manufacturing ricin, a deadly plant toxin, for use against Internal Revenue Service agents and others. Authorities have also read danger in evidence that various nations have been increasing their stockpiles of germ weapons. Among those believed to possess, or trying to possess, such weapons are Russia, China, Iraq, Taiwan, Iran, Egypt, Libya, Syria, North Korea and Israel. Iraq has resisted United Nations weapon inspections this year in large part to hide what U.N. officials believe is a growing germ arsenal. The closest thing to a germ attack in the United States came in 1984, when the Rajneeshee cult in Oregon sprinkled salmonella bacteria in 10 salad bars to sicken the local population in an attempt to throw an election in their favor. Because of this rarity, authorities say they do not believe germ attack is imminent enough to warrant all U.S. citizens being immunized, as the troops will be. Yet the threat is great enough, they say, to warrant a lot more planning, precaution and spending. The likelihood of a germ attack is "still small," Selden said. "But if it does happen, the effect could be huge."

Email Homepage
Secret Weapons