Forget the gas mask get informed. It may not be the most reassuring
advice for anyone who now cringe at the sight of a crop-duster, but it
was the underlying message at a student-organized event called the Bio-Terrorism
Public Awareness Conference held at Concordia on Nov. 30.
Theres nothing you guys can do to prevent an attack,
explained Robert Laporte, a Concordia student specializing in cellular
and molecular biology, who gave a lively history of biowarfare and described
the most commonly used biological agents.
The responsibility to meet such attacks lies with all of us, and rapid
intervention by local responders can limit injury and loss of life. The
only thing you can do is educate yourselves, try to understand the symptoms
and the signs, and know how to help each other if need be.
Laporte said its crucial to note unusual infections, such as flu
outbreaks in summer or an entire office staff getting sick at the same
time, like the recent anthrax cases in the U.S. If you discover
blisters on your hands, for example, dont take the subway to go
to the hospital. Call 911 and they will send the right people to your
Classes of biological agents include bacteria, viruses, rickettsia, fungi
and toxins. Smallpox is a deadly and highly contagious virus, but vaccine
is efficacious during the first week of exposure. Antrax is not infectious,
and if diagnosed early, it can be treated with antibiotics. Laportes
seminar, punctuated by chilling slides, walked the audience through the
history of bio-terrorism. From poisoning water supplies in ancient Athens
to plague-infested fleas in Japan, people have experimented with biological
warfare. Why? Because its relatively inexpensive, easy to produce,
theres a delay from onset until detection, and populations who are
not immunized are vulnerable.
The deadliest biological and chemical agents, however, were developed
under the watchful eye of Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov, a scientist in the Soviet
program Biopreparat that blossomed during the 1970s. Alibekov defected
to the U.S. in 1992 after funding for the program waned.
Laporte pointed out that roughly 60,000 scientists like Alibekov were
effectively unemployed after 1992 and became attractive acquisitions for
terrorist organizations and rogue nations jostling for international leverage.
The U.S. proved with their undercover Project Bacchus that
anyone can start a BW program with about $1 million (US), purchasing the
necessary equipment from local stores and the Internet.
Larry Wayne Harris, a white supremacist leader in the U.S., was able to
order the plague through the mail after learning of the sarin gas attack
on Tokyos subway system in 1997, Laport said. When the FBI finally
tracked him down, he had enough anthrax in his trunk to kill all
of Las Vegas.
Laporte said, Going out and buying a gas mask will not help you
in a biological attack, even though they are selling like hotcakes now.
While they might help in chemical attacks, most deadly microbes are odorless
and tasteless, meaning you would have to wear it all the time. Thats
Major J.P.M. Tardif, from the Directorate of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical
Defence, in Ottawa, gave an overview of the response of Department of
National Defence and the Canadian Forces to nuclear, biological and chemical
terrorist incidents. He said DND has maintained a response capability
since the Montreal Olympic Games in 1976.
Thanks to Sonia Ruiz, Department of Biology, for additional information.