September 10, 2006

ATTAC Report This Week

A Deadly Anthrax Hoax

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Government officials are steadily making preparations for a bio-warfare terrorist attack. But are those contingency plans protecting us, or are they creating unnecessary dangers?

Hello. I’m your host, Boruch Ellison, and this is “ATTAC Report This Week” for September 10th, 2006.

Public Health officials have been trying for decades to frighten the public about the possibility of a biological warfare attack. Whether in time of war or as a terrorist attack, according to those health authorities, an enemy could “weaponize” germs and disperse them in crowded cities, launching uncontrolled epidemics of deadly, infectious disease. Federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control have never stopped lobbying for emergency powers to deal with the threat.

During the 1990s, the Clinton Administration promoted the Public Health agenda by inoculating hundreds of thousands of soldiers with a vaccine against anthrax, the germ most popularly used in bio-warfare research for many years. The program slowed by the late 1990s over safety concerns.

The idea of mass anthrax vaccination received a new boost in late 2001, when huge doses of anthrax spores were sent by postal mail to members of Congress and a publisher in Florida, leading to several illnesses and deaths. Since then, the Bush Administration has revived the Clinton Public Health program and has begun the stockpiling of tens of millions of doses of anthrax vaccine while giving a boost to the pharmaceutical industry, which has been producing hundreds of millions of doses of the antibacterial drug Cipro.

Yet many scientists caution that anthrax may not be nearly as deadly as Public Health authorities try to make it seem. Although it has long been studied as a possible weapon, anthrax is a disease as old as the human race. It primarily affects cattle, and thus has always been one of the standard nuisances faced by ranchers and meat processors. The spores typically lie dormant in the soil, reactivating periodically to infect cows, sheep, goats, pigs, and horses.

Studies have shown hidden anthrax infection in as many as one out of every five workers involved in butchering, leather tanning, and meat processing; that translates into many thousands of infected workers, very few of whom ever develop anthrax symptoms.

Even those who become ill are not likely to die. In contrast to alarmist Public Health warnings, legitimate scientific research finds that even under the worst possible conditions, no more than one quarter of those ill with anthrax end up dying of the disease; most patients recover, even without adequate treatment.

That’s similar to the picture that emerged in 2001. Of thousands of postal workers and others exposed to anthrax spores, only eleven people ended up becoming ill, of whom only five died. The disease turned up almost entirely in elderly people as old as 94 years, whose immune systems are less able to fight off any disease, not just anthrax.

The difficulty of using anthrax as a weapon came to light in the 1990s, when the Aum Shinrikyo terrorist group in Japan dispersed anthrax germs several times in the crowded urban setting of Tokyo — without ever producing even the slightest epidemic. The healthy immune defenses of normal people simply neutralized the disease. That leaves little doubt that a full-blown bio-warfare attack probably wouldn’t have any noticeable effect.

But while the anthrax disease itself may not pose any real hazard, the Public Health response might. Mass immunization in the U.S. military produced large-scale illness among soldiers, with nearly two-thirds showing symptoms and a handful of cases becoming seriously ill from the vaccine’s side effects. When taken by pregnant mothers, the vaccine can lead to birth defects.

The drug Cipro is even worse. Its adverse reactions show up commonly, and can include such severe symptoms as inflammation and rupture of tendons. Cipro also can attack the central nervous system, producing hallucinations, depression, paranoia, and other brain disorders.

The best defense in a bio-warfare attack may be to do nothing at all. The germs will probably affect very few people, but the Public Health measures could be deadly.

Thank you for listening. From all of us at ATTAC Report, good-bye.

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