- ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) - It will fall to doctors - not the military or police
- to recognize when bioterrorists have struck and to react in time to stop
thousands of Americans from getting sick or dying, experts told the first
medical conference on the danger Tuesday.
- Imagine a truck driving by a football
stadium during a fall game. It sprays a mist that drifts over the stadium.
- Two days later, hundreds show up with
sniffles and fevers that doctors believe is the flu. But five days later
300 people are dead before a local scientist solves the mystery: It's not
flu, it's anthrax.
- Johns Hopkins University used that fictional
scenario to tell doctors that the danger is real -- and the nation isn't
yet ready to handle it.
- ``To remain unprepared is to invite disaster,''
said Hopkins' Dr. D.A. Henderson, who led the world's eradication of smallpox
and now is mobilizing health workers and the government against bioterrorism.
- Policy-makers know how to respond to
bombs, but have ``an almost total lack of understanding of the implications
of epidemic disease'' that bioterrorism would cause, Henderson said.
- The average American is far more likely
to die in a car crash than ever face a bioterrorist attack, other experts
reassured the conference. But the threat is real, so the government is
starting to prepare doctors and hospitals.
- ``We must not be afraid, but we must
be aware,'' said Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, whose
office is spending $158 million this year, and has asked Congress for $230
million next year, to prepare.
- Currently, there is no national stockpile
of treatment or vaccines. And doctors must be educated how to spot unusual
symptoms and then what to do. They may not know, for example, that anthrax
can't be spread person-to-person but that smallpox is highly contagious.
- A huge attack like the Hopkins' anthrax
scenario is unlikely, but possible, said Col. Gerald Parker, the U.S. Army's
chief of infectious disease. The worst agents would be anthrax and smallpox,
which are highly deadly and can be manipulated into weapons that victims
- A more likely scenario is small attacks,
said former National Security Council member Jessica Stern. Americans already
have experienced one: In 1985, a religious cult poisoned Oregon salad bars
with salmonella, making 750 people sick.
- Germs are the ultimate sneak attack.
Leave a germ-tainted package in a subway, and the terrorist is long gone
before anyone knows there's a problem.
- Publicly, the most feared germ weapons
program has been Iraq's.
- But the Japanese cult that released the
nerve gas sarin in a Tokyo subway in 1995 attempted bioterrorism first,
said terrorism expert Kyle Olson of Research Planning Inc.
- Four times before the nerve gas attack,
the cult attempted to spray botulism toxin and anthrax around Japanese
government buildings, he said. Although there were some reports of pet
deaths, the attempts apparently failed to sicken any people, for unknown
reasons, Olson said.
- And nobody knows what has happened to
the former Soviet Union's vast stockpiles of weaponized germs, including
smallpox, said Christopher Davis of ORAQ Consultancy, who investigated
Soviet bioweapons for Britain.
- But terrorists don't have to dispense
germs to cause terror, Stern said, pointing to a spate of anthrax hoaxes
starting last year that have so far affected more than 5,000 Americans.
- A typical case: An abortion clinic opens
a letter mixed with powder that says, ``You have just been exposed to anthrax.''
The local fire department makes everyone in the clinic take a decontamination
shower, and the hospital doles out antibiotics, which can prevent anthrax
if taken soon after exposure.
- All the threats so far have been hoaxes,
but investigating can cost up to $100,000 and repeated false alarms mean
some cities don't take the threats seriously anymore, Olson said.
- ``It's the 'cry wolf syndrome,''' he
said. ``The danger, obviously, is we're going to miss something.''
- If local doctors spot unusual symptoms,
alerting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quickly could help
health officials mobilize drugs to stop an epidemic. Antibiotics can prevent
anthrax if people take them soon enough after exposure, for instance.
- But more research is needed, Henderson
said. Smallpox vaccination hasn't been given anywhere in the world for
years; there are only enough vaccination doses left for 6 million people
and no factory left to make more.