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Terrorism is the intentional use or threat to use violence against civilians or civilian targets in order to attain political ends. Bioterrorism uses microorganisms or toxins that are derived from living organisms to produce death or disease in humans, animals, or plants. Animals and plants are of concern because of the economic consequences of terrorism on food production and exports.
Historically, terrorists have relied primarily on conventional weapons such as guns and explosives to further their objectives. While conventional weapons will continue to be the most accessible, biological weapons are becoming increasingly available, and terrorists have turned from low-casualty, high-visibility targets to targets that can result in mass casualties, where biological weapons are an ideal choice. One of the most important advantages of biological weapons is cost. One dollar’s worth of anthrax can kill as many people as $2,000 worth of conventional explosives.
Biological agents had been used as weapons only twice in the United States. On September 9, 1984, a religious cult, the Rajneeshees, sprayed Salmonella typhimurium on salad bars in The Dales, Oregon, causing 751 cases of food poisoning. No deaths occurred. The second U.S. attack occurred in September 2001, when Bacillus anthracis spores were distributed through the U.S. Postal Service. This attack resulted in twenty-two cases of anthrax infection and five deaths. The production of this weapons-grade anthrax required a high degree of scientific knowledge and sophisticated equipment. Approximately two grams of the anthrax spores, if aerosolized effectively, could kill tens of thousands of people. Although the 1995 subway attack in Tokyo by the religious extremist group Aum Shinrikyo used a chemical agent, Aum had previously attempted to use anthrax and botulinum toxin.
Terrorists have access to hundreds of potential biological agents to use as weapons. These weapons can be in liquid or powder form, and they can be dispersed successfully as an aerosol if particle sizes are small enough to enter the lungs. The particles can be aerosolized from a stationary location or from a moving source either outdoors or indoors. Furthermore, many biological agents can be delivered in food or water.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has identified thirty-one potential agents that bioterrorists can use. The United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), has reduced this list to six primary agents: anthrax, smallpox, plague, tularemia, botulinum toxin, and agents of viral hemorrhagic fever. Many of these agents cause diseases that present-day physicians have never seen, decreasing the likelihood that they can be rapidly diagnosed.
The United States, United Kingdom, and other countries have developed national response plans to deal with natural disasters and acts of terrorism, including bioterrorism. These plans will be important for mounting a coordinated response to a bioterrorist attack. Equally important are plans to respond to a global outbreak of an infectious disease because similar response mechanisms will be used for bioterrorism. Both the World Health Organization and the United States released plans in 2005 for responding to a pandemic of influenza. Other countries are developing similar plans, and these plans will be important not only for a naturally occurring infectious disease but also for a bioterrorist attack.
An effective response to an attack will also require modifying existing laws so that governments can maximize their response efforts. Governors must be able to suspend provisions that regulate how state agencies do business in order for them to rapidly respond to public health emergencies. Public health authorities must be able to close and order the decontamination of buildings and destroy or safely dispose of any material or human remains that have been contaminated. They must also be able to take every available measure to prevent the transmission of infectious disease, including the use of isolation and quarantine, and to ensure that all cases of contagious disease are properly controlled and treated. Laws will also need to be modified to allow for the rapid purchase of pharmaceutical agents and the rationing of scare supplies. Public health authorities must be able to provide temporary licenses to out-of-state health care providers and modify liability laws to protect state officials and health care providers during a declared emergency.
Although extreme measures are called for during an emergency such as a bioterrorist attack, civil liberties must be protected. Gross negligence or willful misconduct should not be exempt from liability. Provisions of the law must be in place for rescinding the emergency orders when health conditions that caused the emergency no longer pose a high probability of a large number of deaths. Lawyers have developed a model emergency health powers act that can be used to strengthen government’s ability to respond to bioterrorism and at the same time protect civil liberties.
- Alibek, K., and S. Handelman. 1999. Biohazard. New York: Random House.
- Diamond, Jared M. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton.
- Gostin, Lawrence O., J. W. Sapsin, S. P. Teret, et al. 2002. The Model State Emergency Health Powers Act: Planning for and Response to Bioterrorism and Naturally Occurring Infectious Diseases. Journal of the American Medical Association 288 (5): 622–628.
- Miller, J., S. Engelberg, and W. Broad. 2001. Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Tucker, J. B., ed. 2000. Toxic Terror: Assessing the Terrorist Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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