Bioterrorism involves the intentional & deliberate release or dissemination of biological agents such as bacteria, viruses, or toxins to cause illness or death in people, animals, or plants. These agents are typically found in nature, but it is possible that they could be mutated or altered to increase their ability to cause disease, make them resistant to current medicines, or to increase their ability to be spread into the environment. Biological agents can be spread through the air, water, or in food. Terrorists tend to use biological agents because they are extremely difficult to detect and do not cause illness for several hours to several days. Some bioterrorism agents, like the smallpox virus, can be spread from person to person and some, like anthrax, cannot.

Essential Facts:

  • Biological agents are easy to obtain and disseminate and cause widespread havoc.
  • The most important difficulty is that it’s quite impossible to employ a bio weapon in a way that only the enemy is affected and not friendly forces.
  • The study of Bioterrorism also involves the possible use of agents which may not harm the humans but may affect the economy such as Foot & Mouth Disease virus which can wipe out the cattle.
  • The first disease used as a tool for bioterrorism was Bubonic Plague in 14th century, when it was used to infiltrate enemy cities. This coupled with less advanced medical technologies cause the bubonic plague quickly move across all of Europe, destroying a large portion of its population.
  • Anthrax was used during First World War by Germany to infect the mules and horses of enemies.
  • The Wikipedia entry of Bioterrorism says that in Oregon (US) in 1984, followers of the Osho Rajneesh attempted to control a local election by incapacitating the local population. This was done by infecting salad bars in 11 restaurants, produce in grocery stores, doorknobs, and other public domains with Salmonella typhimurium bacteria in the city of The Dalles, Oregon. The attack infected 751 people with severe food poisoning. However, there were no fatalities. This incident was the first known bioterrorist attack in the United States in the 20th century.
  • In September and October 2001, several cases of anthrax broke out in the United States in the 2001 anthrax attacks, caused deliberately. Letters laced with infectious anthrax were delivered to news media offices and the U.S Congress. The letters killed 5.

Major agents used

  • Tularemia → Rabbit fever, has a very low fatality rate if treated, but can severely incapacitate.
  • Anthrax → Non-contagious disease caused by the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis.
  • Smallpox → highly contagious virus. It is transmitted easily through the atmosphere and has a high mortality rate (20-40%). Smallpox was eradicated in the world in the 1970s, thanks to a worldwide vaccination program. However, some virus samples are still available in Russian and American laboratories. Some believe that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, cultures of smallpox have become available in other countries.
  • Botulinum toxin → One of the deadliest toxins known, and is produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Botulism causes death by respiratory failure and paralysis.
  • Bubonic plague → Caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium. Rodents are the normal host of plague, and the disease is transmitted to humans by flea bites and occasionally by aerosol in the form of pneumonic plague.
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