NBC Weapons: July 1, 2004

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The Department of Defense recently announced that it would begin giving anthrax and smallpox vaccinations to some units being sent to areas in the Pacific. This probably means mostly army or air force units stationed out there, as ships at sea are pretty safe from biological weapon attack. Salt water is very hostile to chemical and biological weapons. 

Giving anthrax and smallpox vaccinations to troops has caused some controversy, 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 arises 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. But 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. As a result, out of 750,000 troops vaccinated for anthrax, about 30 refused, and were all punished for disobeying orders. 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 rural areas. Most of them get anthrax on their skin, which is not often 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, those who have it pass 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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