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Bioterrorism Risk Is Real, but Safeguards Are Falling Into Place

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Jan. 10, 2000 (Atlanta) -- The worst Y2K bug may have nothing to do with computers at all. Instead, it may be a real "bug," a micro-organism used by terrorists to wreak widespread damage. Whether it's anthrax or smallpox or some other lethal organism, in the wrong hands, it could be used to cause a major public health disaster.

That's all true. But is it likely? And does the real danger lie not in the threat itself, but in the rhetoric surrounding it?

In a recent editorial in the American Journal of Infection Control (AJIC), Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH, and CEO of the Infection Control Advisory Network, wrote "I firmly believe that it is not a matter of 'if' a bioterrorism event will occur in the United States, but rather 'when, where, and how large?'"

Leonard A. Cole, PhD, author of the book The Eleventh Plague: The Politics of Biological and Chemical Warfare, wrote in the same issue of AJIC of the risks associated with "hyperbole" on the subject, calling for "rhetorical restraint." He links the spate of anthrax hoaxes over the last two years to government and media attention given to the subject of bioterrorism.

The threat of biological weapons in the Gulf War, and the chemical terrorism used by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, which released sarin nerve gas into a Tokyo subway in 1995, combined to raise concerns among many people over whether such threats could affect the United States.

Congress took notice, and federal coffers opened. Last year, hundreds of millions of dollars were allocated to prepare for the possibility of bioterrorism. The CDC set up a bioterrorism preparedness and response program.

Scott Lillibridge, MD, the director of the program for the CDC, tells WebMD that the agency is not "predicting threats," but working to "shore up public health vulnerabilities." He says that in the program's first year, the CDC worked to develop a national stockpile of critical medications, vaccines, and antitoxins.

"Two-thirds of the money went out to enhance state and local capacities in areas related to surveillance, laboratory [detection], and general public health preparedness," Lillibridge says. That preparedness will have "dual-use capacities." he says, when the program meets its goals in about three to five years.

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