City Exposes Health Care Pros to Tough Task of Combating Silent,Elusive Killer

Facing a Bio-Terrorism Threat
by Jim Herron Zamora
Examiner Staff

Source: San Francisco Gate 06/06/NEWS7406.dtl

June 6, 2000

Itís a silent killer - and a hard one to catch.

Unlike bomb blasts, gunfire or even nerve gas, biological terrorism is so subtle that infected people may never know they are victims of a terrorist attack.

"Bio-terrorism is the most difficult kind of terrorism to detect," said William Clark, a senior advisor on terrorism for the U.S. Deparment of Health and Human Services. "There is no obvious focal point for the incident. You donít know youíve been hit until sick people start showing up at the doctors."

Clarkís comments came at a daylong conference on bio-terrorism for health professionals at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. The conference, sponsored by the San Francisco Department of Public Health, gave a chilling overview of the challenges posed by bio-terrorism.

In bio-terrorism, a political group or a hostile nation can use disease - either from bacteria or viruses - as a weapon of war.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union developed deadly strains during the 1950s but have never been known to use them. Most such weapons were destroyed in the 1980s after they were outlawed by international treaties.

But the threat that such microbes could be used by terrorist groups or rogue nations remains. There have been several reports, including one last month on CNN in which Russian scientists with experience in bio-weapons programs described how they had been approached by groups interested in developing deadly diseases.

Most stories about biological terrorism have focused on the threat of anthrax. But those who work in the field said the risk of anthrax or smallpox being used by terrorists was small. Virtually all known cases have been hoaxes, according to a report presented at the conference. There were 81 hoaxes involving the anthrax virus reported in the United States last year, according to a report whose co-author is Jason Pate, a panelist and researcher with the Monterey Institute on International Studies.

It is far easier for terrorists to obtain or develop forms of bacteria such as salmonella or botulism to infect people, according to experts. But viruses, such as smallpox and anthrax, are rarer and harder for a civilian to obtain.

The largest act of biological terrorism in the United States occurred in Oregon in 1984. Cult followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh pleaded guilty to the non-fatal poisoning of 750 people by sprinkling salmonella bacteria in salad bars.

Clark described how last month authorities in Washington, D.C., Portsmouth, N.H., and Denver participated in an exercise involving mock attacks using chemical and biological agents.

In the Denver exercise, Clark said, local police who tried to assist victims ended up getting infected themselves and then passing the disease on to others.

Several speakers said bio-terrorism forced authorities to change the rules when it came to responding to such threats.

"It doesnít have to be in a city; it could happen in rural areas too," said Gloria Teeters, a public health nurse from Mendocino County. "I donít think anyone can say it wonít happen here."

The participants included 252 people from about 35 organizations. Most were health professionals or emergency services experts from counties, the state or federal government. Other participants included a smattering of police, firefighters and paramedics as well as representatives from the FBI, armed forces and private health providers such as Kaiser.

Many audience members and panelists said the threat of bio-terrorism was chilling and unnerving even for the experts.

"Itís scary," said John Fazio, an emergency room nurse at San Francisco General Hospital. "Iím glad that we are planning for this. The reality is that this can happen, but I sure hope that it doesnít."

The focus on terrorism is timely. The National Commission on Terrorism presented Congress Monday with a report citing Americaís "lack of preparedness for a catastrophic terrorist attack involving a biological agent, deadly chemicals or nuclear or radiological materials."

©2000 San Francisco Examiner
Originally printed by the Hearst Examiner on Page A-8

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