Sociology Index

Bioterrorism - Nature As Ally

Bioterrorism is the use of bacteria, viruses, or other types of biological weapons, to harm large number of people or communities. In bioterrorism weapons, the weapons bacteria, viruses, or germs are spread through air, water, or food sources. Because terrorism is defined by the terrorist, the risk posed by various microorganisms as biological weapons and the historical development and use of biological agents needs to be better understood. Bioterrorism agents are more potent than conventional nuclear and chemical weapons. Progress made in biotechnology and biochemistry has simplified the development and production of such weapons.

Nuclear terrorism and nuclear weapons are no longer the threat they used to be. "Little Boy" was the codename for the type of atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 during World War II. It was the first nuclear weapon used in warfare. It exploded with an energy of approximately 15 kilotons of TNT and caused widespread death and destruction throughout the city. The Hiroshima bombing was the second man-made nuclear explosion in history, after the Trinity test. Some of the nuclear weapons today are more than 3,000 times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. A nuclear war will surely be the end of the world as we know.

But humans, by nature seek to be perpetually at war with other humans, either overt or covert. Overt terrorism brings sanctions, so the option now is bioterrorism which is accomplished by absolutely covert means. The conception of Koch's postulates and the development of modern microbiology has made possible the isolation and production of stocks of specific pathogens. Koch's postulates been supplanted by other criteria such as the Bradford Hill criteria for infectious disease causality in modern public health, and Falkow's criteria for microbial pathogenesis.

Genetic engineering holds the most dangerous potential. Ease of production and the availability of biological agents and widely available technical know how have led to a further spread of biological weapons and an increased desire among countries to have them. The threat of bioterrorism is real; it is neither in the hands of god, realm of science fiction, nor confined to one nation.

Infectious diseases were recognized for their potential impact on people and armies as early as 600 bc. The crude use of filth and cadavers, animal carcasses, and contagion had devastating effects and weakened the enemy. Polluting wells and other sources of water of the opposing army was a common strategy that was used through the many European wars, during the American Civil War, and into the 21st century.

Military leaders in the Middle Ages recognized that victims of infectious diseases could become weapons themselves. During the siege of Caffa, a well-fortified Genoese-controlled seaport (Feodosia, Ukraine), in 1346, the attacking Tartar force experienced an epidemic of plague. The Tartars, however, converted their misfortune into an opportunity by hurling the cadavers of their deceased into the city, thus initiating a plague epidemic in the city. The outbreak of plague followed, forcing a retreat of the Genoese forces. The plague pandemic, also known as the Black Death, swept through Europe, the Near East, and North Africa in the 14th century and was probably the most devastating public health disaster in recorded history. The ultimate origin of the plague remains uncertain: several countries in the Far East, China, Mongolia, India, and central Asia have been suggested.

The Caffa incident was described in 1348 or 1349 by Gabriel de Mussis, a notary born in Piacenza north of Genoa. Gabriel De Mussis made two important claims: plague was transmitted to the citizens of Caffa by the hurling of diseased cadavers into the besieged city, and Italians fleeing from Caffa brought the plague into the Mediterranean seaports. In fact, ships carrying plague-infected refugees and rats, sailed to Constantinople, Genoa, Venice, and other Mediterranean seaports and are thought to have contributed to the second plague pandemic. The account of a biological warfare attack in Caffa is plausible and consistent with the technology of that time, and the siege of Caffa is a powerful reminder of the terrible consequences when diseases are used as weapons.

The 14th-century plague pandemic killed more than 25 million Europeans in the 14th and 15th centuries. Bodies of dead soldiers were catapulted into the ranks of the enemy in Karolstein in 1422. A similar strategy using cadavers of plague victims was utilized in 1710 during the battle between Russian troops and Swedish forces in Reval. During the past 2000 years, the use of biological agents in the form of disease, filth, and animal and human cadavers has been mentioned in historical recordings.

Examples of bioterrorism and chemical warfare during the past 2000 years:
600 bce: Solon uses the purgative herb hellebore during the siege of Krissa.
1155: Emperor Barbarossa poisons water wells with human bodies in Tortona, Italy.
1346: Tartar forces catapult bodies of plague victims over the city walls of Caffa.
1495 Spanish mix wine with blood of leprosy patients to sell to their French foes.
1675 German and French forces agree to not use poisonous bullets.
1710 Russian troops catapult human bodies of plague victims into Swedish cities.
1763 British distribute blankets from smallpox patients to Native Americans.
1797 Napoleon floods the plains in Italy, to enhance the spread of malaria.
1863 Confederates sell clothing from yellow fever and smallpox patients.
WWar I German and French agents use glanders and anthrax.
WWar II Japan uses plague, anthrax, and other diseases; bioterrorism begins.
1980-88 Iraq uses mustard gas, sarin, and tabun against Iran in Persian Gulf War.
1995 Aum Shinrikyo uses sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system.Pizarro is said to have presented South American natives with variola-contaminated clothing in the 15th century. During the French-Indian War (1754–1767), Sir Jeffrey Amherst, the commander of the British forces in North America, suggested the deliberate use of smallpox to diminish the native Indian population hostile to the British. An outbreak of smallpox in Fort Pitt led to a significant generation of fomites and provided Amherst with the means to execute his plan. On June 24, 1763, Captain Ecuyer, one of Amherst's subordinate officers, provided the Native Americans with smallpox-laden blankets from the smallpox hospital. He recorded in his journal: “I hope it will have the desired effect”. As a result, a large outbreak of smallpox occurred among the Indian tribes in the Ohio River Valley. It has to be recognized that several other contacts between European colonists and Native Americans contributed to such epidemics, which had been occurring for over 200 years. In addition, the transmission of smallpox by fomites was inefficient compared with respiratory droplet transmission.

Historical attempts of using diseases in biological warfare illustrates the difficulty of differentiating between a naturally occurring epidemic and an alleged biological warfare attack—a problem that has continued into present times, and will continue into the future.