NBC Weapons: Smallpox In The Pacific

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NUCLEAR, BIOLOGICAL AND CHEMICAL WEAPONS

January 25, 2008: The U.S. Air Force recently held a 24 hour "disease containment exercise" at Anderson Air Force Base on the Pacific island of Guam. The premise was that a package containing smallpox was delivered to a building on the base. All the emergency response personnel, which includes all the security troops and many other as well, were called out to do their thing. This was all observed, and performance and problems noted. There were minor disruptions to base operations, but at the same time, just about every aspect of base operations was involved. Similar exercises are suitable for other biological attacks, as with anthrax.

Containment would be followed by quickly vaccinating troops, who are not already vaccinated, against the disease agent. Giving anthrax and smallpox vaccinations to troops ahead of time has caused some controversy, including lawsuits, despite the fact that thousands of medical and agricultural workers regularly get anthrax vaccinations, and that until the 1970s, nearly everyone was vaccinated for smallpox. The controversy arose from the fact that, with any vaccination, a small percentage (usually a fraction of one percent) of those receiving the vaccination will get sick. A few people will even die. But when your chance of exposure to much more lethal diseases like anthrax and smallpox is high, the small vaccination risk is considered a reasonable trade off. The Department of Defense vaccination program is to protect troops against the possible terrorist use of biological weapons. The problem here is that there is no agreement on how likely that is to happen. Thus the real risk of adverse reaction to a vaccination looms larger than the threat of catching the disease itself. Out of 750,000 troops originally vaccinated for anthrax, about 30 refused, and were all punished for disobeying orders. It was from this group that the legal actions originated. The scientific community finally convinced the courts that giving the troops anthrax vaccinations was a safe and sound thing to do.

Another 625,000 troops have been vaccinated for smallpox, with no refusals. This is apparently due to the fact that many older troops had been vaccinated once before, when they were children, with no ill effect. Until the late 1970s, nearly everyone was vaccinated for smallpox, a disease that kills about 30 percent of its victims. Anthrax is very rare, only showing up among people who work with farm animals, or work in certain rural areas. Most of them get anthrax on their skin, which is rarely fatal, and easy to cure. The inhaled version is rare in the wild, and fatal more than half the time. Military grade anthrax would mostly be inhaled, and thus could be more devastating than smallpox. But smallpox is easier to spread, it is passed it on by simply breathing.

However, it is considered unlikely that a terrorist organization would use smallpox, because it would probably quickly get back to impoverished Islamic countries, where treatment and vaccination would be much less likely. Thus, Islamic terrorists using smallpox would end up killing far more Moslems than Christians. But, then, terrorists have never been noted for their heavy use of logic.

 


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