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Powder panic: anthrax fact & fiction.

At first it seemed just that, a panic, a hoax, the work of a demented mind, unintentionally aided and abetted by a sensationalist media. Experts were rounded up to assure us that we were being irrational by demanding gas masks and depleting the stocks of Cipro or ciprofloxin on pharmacy shelves. Health Minister Alan Rock informed us that "the risk of bioterrorism in Canada remains remote," as he announced almost $12 million in new funding to defend us against that same remote possibility. Yet, by the third week of October, it had become evident to even the most sceptical that North America was under biological attack.

Mr. Rock made his announcement the same day that the U.S. Senate was virtually shut down after thirty-four employees were diagnosed as having come into contact with anthrax. The day before, it was revealed that an anthrax-laced letter had been discovered in the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle which bore a close resemblance to a tainted letter that infected an NBC News employee in New York. Preliminary tests on the New York letter showed the same strain of anthrax found at a Florida tabloid news headquarters where one man died after inhaling anthrax and another was fighting for his life.

Infectious, spread by a bacterium usually found in sheep and cattle but capable of transmission to humans, anthrax is fatal in 25 to 60 percent of cases if not treated promptly. Symptoms include abdominal pain and diarrhea and occur within one to seven days of contact, although the incubation period can last up to sixty days. Pulmonary anthrax is the most dangerous form of the infection and inhaling the spores is usually fatal. Initial flu-like symptoms are followed after a few days by breathing difficulties and toxic shock.

Although anthrax has never been used as a weapon, the Department of National Defence and the Pentagon have long feared that it might be, by Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea or any of five other states believed to be working on such weapons. Taking no chances, military personnel deployed to the Middle East were ordered to undergo inoculation with a vaccine that proved to be as dangerous as the disease itself.

The anthrax vaccine, developed decades ago for workers handling animals and hides, was designed to counteract contact with the skin and it was never determined how well it would protect humans from airborne infection. Nevertheless, nearly 400,000 American servicemen received the vaccine to a chorus of complaints about fevers, muscle pain, vertigo, seizures and chronic fatigue. Similar complaints have been heard in Canada. The vaccine is no longer in production.

Since anthrax is very rare, treatment is somewhat theoretical. No clinical trials, for example, have tested Cipro in people with anthrax; its current use is based entirely on animal studies. "I don't know how Cipro got labelled in the first place as the drug of choice," said Philip Hanna, an anthrax expert at the University of Michigan. "It's a great medicine for a number of different bacteria, but I don't know how it got labelled as the go-to medicine for anthrax." Penicillin and doxycycline are equally effective against anthrax and have been used clinically.

President Bush has asked Congress for $1.5 billion to bolster America's supply of antibiotics and vaccines to counter any further bioterrorist action and Health Canada plans to more than double the antibiotic reserves of the National Emergency Stockpile System. Funds have also been devoted to enhance laboratory facilities and to train front-line staff in communities across Canada to recognise, diagnose and treat suspicious illnesses. Detection equipment will be installed at strategic locations across Canada.

It is not clear whether or not the anthrax attacks are linked to organised terrorist groups like Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. Regardless of whoever is responsible, Canadians must not give counsel to their fears. To do so would be to concede defeat, for fear is the terrorist's most potent weapon.
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Author:Twatio, Bill
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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