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The threat is real

Biological terrorism clearly is a legitimate threat that we are going to be dealing with for years to come . . .

By Keener A. Tippin II




With the dew glistening in the first light of a Kansas morning, a small plane appears just over the horizon of the majestic Flint Hills. The drone of its engine breaks up the quiet of the sunrise as the plane descends and aligns itself to fly along a gravel road that separates two farms. As the pilot banks the plane to fly perpendicular to the wind, a cloud of white is emitted from spouts on the wings and a fine dust settles down onto the crops.

His payload delivered, the plane begins to climb upward to the clouds. The pilot smiles and waves, acknowledging a young boy below feeding the family's chickens.

Nothing seems out of place. The only abnormality of the event is a strong, persistent breeze from the west. Just a crop duster treating a farmer's crops; to control or eliminate a variety of weeds or pests, right?

But this isn't just any crop duster. And the payload he's carrying isn't fertilizer, but about 20 pounds of freeze-dried anthrax. It won't kill weeds but livestock and humans instead. And if he really knows what he is doing, he could kill lots of them.

Elsewhere, at a southwest Kansas feedlot, an ominous phone message is received. The anonymous caller states he has mixed the ground brains of cows infected with mad cow disease into the facility's feeders. At a livestock show an undetected visitor removes a spray bottle from his coat and mists several animals with the virus that causes foot-and-mouth disease, eventually devastating the state's beef, swine and sheep industries.

Although the above scenarios are fictional, just months ago few if any would have believed such an attack could occur. However, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center and several deaths and reported cases of anthrax across the nation, the paradigm has "shifted as far as the perception of the ability of people to inflict mass casualties," according to a K-State bioterrorism expert.

"One of the problems in talking about weapons of mass destruction in the context of terrorism, is that the general public has not taken the threat very seriously," said Jerry Jaax. "Most didn't believe that there are people who would be willing to inflict massive casualties, the kind of casualties we saw on Sept. 11. I believe that for most of us, that notion has now been put to rest."

For terrorists looking to strike at the nerve center of this country's financial and military power, choosing either New York or Washington, D.C., as targets were no-brainers. Were a terrorist attack to occur on the heartland, the choice is not as clear-cut. Such an attack need not be against humans, but where it could inflict the most harm — against its agricultural-based economy.

According to Jaax, the economic consequences of such a bioterrorism attack could be "devastating," crippling the agricultural-based economy of the region and creating a potential economic disaster.

Jaax said although the events since Sept. 11 have made it clear the country is vulnerable to biological attack, it is important for people to understand that the biological threat is difficult to define. In effect, the threat is agent, target and delivery dependent and a change in any of the three variables makes the scope and the response to the threat different.

"It would be easier to attack agricultural targets since many possible agents would not be as dangerous to humans, and the delivery of agricultural pathogens to targets would pose less of a risk to perpetrators in rural areas where detection would be difficult," he said.

Although they have been referred to as the "poor man's nuclear weapons" in the post-Cold War era, Jaax is quick to point out that while possible, the efficient use of biological agents as weapons is not an easy thing to do, and he cautions against hysteria. "If it was that easy, we probably would have seen it happen long before now," he said.

According to Jaax, many of the classical biowarfare agents we were concerned about during the Cold War are zoonotic diseases, meaning they could infect both animals and humans. Anthrax is certainly the primary culprit in this group, he said.

Jaax said another category of biowarfare agents would include diseases that infect only humans. The agent in this group that is of most concern is the viral disease, smallpox. Unlike anthrax, smallpox is highly contagious from one person to another, and poses the additional risk of causing a widespread epidemic. He said the "exceptional mobility" of our society would do a lot of the work of spreading the disease.

Jaax predicts that smallpox would cause about 30 percent mortality rate in people that weren't protected. Much of the population was vaccinated before the official eradication of the virus in the late 1970s.

Spring 2002