Smallpox or Anthrax Could Spread for Days Before the Epidemic is Noticed

Prepare for Bioterrorism Attack, Military Doctor Warns
by Margaret Munro

Source: The National Post .html

February 19, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO - A U.S. Army expert in biological warfare is urging Washington to prepare for a bioterrorism attack that he says is inevitable and could unleash a silent killer such as smallpox, anthrax or the plague on an unsuspecting public.

"We need more of a sense of urgency about this," said Colonel Edward Eitzen, a doctor and bio-weapons specialist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

Biological warfare is the "ultimate weapon" since the first sign of attack would likely be sick or dying people showing up at doctorsí offices and hospital emergency rooms, he told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

He said the pathogens that would be released in a bioterrorism attack are relatively cheap, accessible and easy to conceal.

Col. Eitzen said terrorists could even willingly infect themselves with smallpox and walk around a city, knowingly infecting people for 14 days before symptoms developed.

Public health staff and medical doctors need to be educated about the threat, warned Dr. Margaret Hamburg, who recently stepped down as a bio-weapons advisor to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

One big concern is that a disease such as smallpox or anthrax could spread for days before the epidemic is noticed. Most emergency rooms and physicians, Dr. Hamburg said, have never seen a case of smallpox or anthrax and some of the deadly diseases have flu-like symptoms in the early stages.

While U.S. government agencies are working with researchers to devise a response, the doctors urge scientists to impress on politicians the need to take the threat more seriously.

They also want to see disease surveillance and testing systems expanded so more labs can identify suspicious microbes within hours.

Col. Eitzen said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recently ordered production of new smallpox vaccine, but it will take four years to produce. When the vaccine becomes available, he said, governments might want to renew discussions about who should be vaccinated, as military personnel and doctors are no longer routinely required to get the shots.

He also said the military medical staff has been cut significantly in recent years and is hard-pressed to keep up with its workload. Meanwhile, bioweapons may also be used to attack the brain.

"Biotechnology will give us the capability to manipulate all of the life processes including cognition," said Dr. Matthew Meselson, a geneticist at Harvard University.

"Itís different from previous technologies in that it has the potential of changing people, not just destroying them."

The threat is still theoretical, he said, but "profound advances in biology" such as deciphering the human genome that spells out some of the biological controls of life could make it possible.

"Over time surely we will be able to manipulate all life processes, including cognition, emotions, reproduction, heredity and development," he said.

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