Advances Heighten Threat
Of Bio-Terrorism
By Harrison Sheppard
Los Angeles Daily News,1249,125014261,00.html?
LOS ANGELES - Improving technology is increasing the possibility of biological terrorism against Los Angeles and other U.S. cities, a military expert on biological warfare said at a seminar on bioterrorism.
Dr. Theodore J. Cieslak, field operations chief at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., said that only major world powers with huge research budgets can develop biological weapons that can kill mass numbers of people. But samples of viruses such as anthrax are relatively easy to obtain, he said, and terrorists continue to get smarter.
"The technology is there now to do it on a small scale," Cieslak said after his talk. "To do it on a larger scale is, fortunately for us, a lot more problematic."
But, he added, "the intelligence community feels within the next 10 years the chance of a larger scale successful attack is overwhelming."
Cieslak was speaking at an annual three-day conference organized by Los Angeles County coroner/chief medical examiner Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran to provide professional education to his staff and other medical examiners from throughout the country. It was held in the Los Angeles community of North Hollywood.
Held at the Beverly Garland Hilton Hotel in North Hollywood, the conference includes such gruesome topics as "Use of Cadaver Detection Dogs" and "Homicide Since the Middle Ages."
Cieslak tried to teach the doctors what to look for if they suspect an anthrax attack but said it is difficult to diagnose at first. Unfortunately, the disease's first symptoms are similar to a common cold or flu, and by the time they become more serious, it is too late for treatment, he said.
"If we wait for the medical examiner to make the first diagnosis, the horse is already out of the barn."
Instead, the best hope doctors have is to then quickly try to find other people who have come into contact with the virus and administer the proper antibiotics along with a vaccine.
Law enforcement officials have seen a steep rise in the number of anthrax hoaxes in the past few years, he said, to the point where they have become the '90s equivalent of the bomb threat or the fire alarm pull.
It is relatively easy to obtain a culture of anthrax, he said.
But the good news is that in order to spread the virus effectively through the air, it has to be reduced in size and kept that way over time, a very difficult and expensive process that only a few countries have mastered.
Members of the audience reacted with a mix of shock and shrugs. Some said they were personally more worried about realistic, everyday threats like gunshots and automobile accidents rather than something that has only a slim possibility of occurring. Others said just the possibility of a terrorist anthrax attack was frightening.
"It's a scary thought," said Dr. Lisa Scheinin, a deputy medical examiner with the county coroner's office. "The scary thing is by the time you know what the problem is, there are people who are already dead and are going to die no matter what you do."
It's kind of sobering how easy it is, if some nut with a little bit of brains wants to do it.