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Biological Terrorism Essay

5876 words - 24 pages

Biological Terrorism


The date is April 24, 2005. The time is approximately 8:30 am. Somewhere on the New York City subway system a briefcase sits, apparently forgotten. Inside the briefcase, an electronic oscillator flips over, marking the passage of thirtieth minute since its owner abdicated. In the busy subway station no one notices the small hissing noise that is produced as an odorless, tasteless aerosol is slowly released into the air. Within minutes, the pathogen contained in the gas has spread throughout the station, and New York has unwittingly played host to the first recorded incidence of bioterrorism.

The first symptoms appear nearly a week later. At first, victims believe they are suffering from the flu, but symptoms quickly progress from fever, rigors and headache to severe chest pain, irregular heartbeat and pustular eruptions. In the absence of treatment, nearly all those infected die within two weeks of the onset of symptoms. 1

Could this really happen? In the above case, glanders (Burkholderia mallei), a pathogen which normally strikes horses and mules, is released by a terroristic individual or group. Glanders was specifically chosen because of its virulence, high mortality rate, stability in aerosol, and ease of cultivation. When symptomatic individuals first arrive, accurate diagnosis will be unlikely; glanders is extremely rare in humans, and it is unlikely that medical personnel will have experience with the disease. Further complicating diagnosis, the pathogen does not appear in blood cultures until the victim is near death. Once diagnosed, medical personnel must take precautions to prevent person-to-person transmission, and care must be provided in special facilities kept under positive pressure. The relative scarcity of such facilities and the potentially large number of infected persons may conspire to overwhelm available resources. Even given ideal conditions and antibiotic use, mortality will be high. (Eitzen, 1998).

Yes, it could happen. In the remainder of this paper, I will consider whether such an incident of catastrophic biological terrorism will occur, who is likely to perpetrate it, what agents they are likely to employ, to what end they may do so, and what technical capabilities will be required. I will focus on independantly motivated terrorism, as state-sponsorship lies beyond the scope of this paper and my research.

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