Sunday, November 29, 2009

Biological Warfare and Disease

The third kind when it comes to weapons of mass destruction is biological weapons. Biological agents are either living microorganisms like bacteria or viruses or toxins produced by microorganisms. In the case of bacteria and viruses they may continue to spread from human to human after an attack with biological weapons have taken place.

Bacteria and Viruses are the most common form of micro organisms that causes disease. Bacteria are living organisms; infections caused by bacteria can often be treated with different forms of antibiotics. Some types of bacteria are by its very nature very resistant against antibiotics, TBC is one example. Lately some strains of antibiotics have started to develop a resistance against different forms of antibiotics. Viruses are different from bacteria: they can only live inside the living cells of living creature. The multiply by infecting a cell and making it produce viruses instead. Antibiotics don’t work on viruses, but there are some new anti viral medicines that reduces the impact of viruses.

Bacteria can also produce biological toxins; one of the most famous examples is the botulinum toxin produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. This toxin is incredible toxic; 1 gram of the most dangerous variant could theoretically kill millions of people. The toxin is destroyed by heat; boiling water for a couple of minutes will destroy any toxin within the water. There is a vaccine against the bacteria and an antiserum against the toxin.

Historical Examples
1300:s Bubonic plague kills millions in Europe

1346 the Mongols catapulted infected bodies over the city walls at Kaffa in order to spread disease.

1763 during the French and Indian war the British forces gave blankets infected with smallpox to hostile Indian tribes.

1870s epidemics of Yellow Fever strikes Memphis, Tennessee. The population of the city is majorly reduced both because of deaths and because people escape from the city.

1918 The Spanish Flu turned into a pandemic that killed around 20-50 million people, that equaled around 3% of the world total population at that time.

1928 Alexander Fleming discovers Penicillin.

1939 with Fleming’s discovery Ernst Chain and Howard Florey managed to produce the first commercial penicillin. This was a major breakthrough in medicine for the treatment of bacteria.

1939-1945 During the Second World War Japanese forces in China experimented with different kinds of disease on Chinese prisoners. The Japanese also spread bubonic plague against Chinese cities. There is a lot of different data on how many that actually died from these attack and figures vary from tens of thousands to hundred of thousand dead. During the Second World War only around 1% died as result of infectious disease, this was a rapid reduction compared to the first World War, around two third of all deaths then was related to infections and disease. This decrease came as a result of better living standards and new medications.

1956-58 The Asian Flu Pandemic caused around 2 million deaths worldwide.

1968 Around one million dies from the Hong Kong flu worldwide.

1969 President Richard Nixon brings an end to the US Biological Weapon Program.

1971 – 1973 The US destroys its stockpiles of biological weapons.

1975 The Convention on the Prohibition the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction (BWC) was signed by the Soviet Union and the US.

1973 The first outbreak of the disease Ebola is recorded. Some strains have had a case fatality rate over 80%, sometimes close to 90%.

1979 There was an outbreak of Anthrax in the city Sverdlovsk in the Soviet union. It was later confirmed that this outbreak was caused by an accidental leakage from a military production facility. The number of dead from this event varies from 60 an up.

1980 After an intense global vaccination program the disease Smallpox is officially declared eradicated. This one of the few diseases that mankind has been able to eradicate. The virus is however kept in laboratories in both Russia and the US today and is one of the most effective diseases that could be used as a biological weapon.

1981 The first confirmed case of HIV/AIDS is reported by the US Center for Disease and Control (CDC).

1984 an sect in India contaminated salad bars in India with salmonella, many people became sick but no one died as result.

1986 The first cases of Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) also known as Mad Cow Disease is found in Animals. It was not believed that the disease could be contracted by humans at first and the number of infected animals kept increasing for a long time.

1988 The Soviet disposes much of their biological weapons by burying them instead of destroying them. There is some fear that some of this sites eventually may start to leak some of these pathogens.

There is some unconfirmed information concerning that the Soviet Union created a super plague during the 1980:s that would be resistant against all kinds of antibiotics. The Soviet Union had a very ambitious bio weapon program with tens of thousands of employees.

During the 1990s the Japnese sect Aum Shinrikyo that attacked the Tokyo Subway with nerve gas tried to develop biological weapons as well.

1992 Boris Yeltsin officially admits that the Soviet Union has continued its bio weapons program after signing the BWC in 1975 and ends Russia’s bio weapons program.

1995 The first cases of Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD) was recorded, the persons effected had worked with cattle during the BSE epidemics. Around 200 persons have died so far from CJD, most of them in Great Britain. The case of BSE & CJD is examples of what can happen if government agencies don’t take threats seriously. It’s by belief that cases like this may be a factor on why we often see over reactions from government agencies, like in the current case of the Swine Flu.

1996 The HAART treatment against HIV/AIDS is introduced.

2001 After 9/11 attacks there was at least five letters containing Anthrax spores sent to three media corporations and two US senators. 22 people were confirmed contracting anthrax, five of these persons died from the disease. 45 buildings was contaminated with anthrax spores and antibiotics was given as a prophylactic measure on a massive scale to people how could have been exposed. In spore form anthrax is resistant to sun light and temperature changes. Anthrax spores may have a life time up to a hundred years.

2009 Swine Flu has become a major topic in the media. Right now there is about 620.000 confirmed cases to the World Health Organization and around 8000 that died from the disease worldwide. In comparison to the Spanish Flu 1918 and the Asian flu 1957 the real threat and mortality seems to be very low.

There has also been some accusation against the US for using smallpox against the North Korean capital during the Korean War and other biological weapons against Cuba but there have been no conclusive evidence that this have been the case.

Early Warning
A disease that is used as biological weapons does not have the same instant effect a nuclear or chemical weapon has. It may take days or even weeks before symptoms start to emerge. So there is a big chance that the people how’s exposed to a biological weapons won’t know that they been exposed before they start to get sick, and even then it may be easy to assume that disease has natural causes.

Personal Hygiene and Protection
One of the most important aspects when it comes to avoiding biological warfare and different kind of infectious diseases is personal hygiene. The importance can’t be overstressed. The most important part of personal hygiene is to clean your hands, the majority of all infections is spread when people somehow get a pathogen on their hands and touch their face, mouth or eyes. Soap and water is an excellent way to clean your hands, soap is a natural killer of different pathogens. The skin is an excellent barrier against diseases as long as it’s not damaged, if you use to much soap your hands may become dry and your skin may rupture and pathogens may enter your body. There is other alcohol based hand sanitizer that also is very effective. The combination of soap water, drying your hand and then using alcohol based disinfections is best. Remember to your entire hand and your wrists. Give extra attention to the back of your hand and your thumb, these areas is often missed. If you’re treating people with wounds use surgical gloves if possible, clean your hands before and after. Hygiene in general is very important in a crisis situation: keep your nails short, brush your teeth, use floss and fluoride mouthwash. A safe solution to use as a toilet is also important. A portable camping shower, bleach, soap, washing powder to clean cloths and shampoo may be good equipment to have in storage at your home. Facemasks may provide some protection against airborne disease, but the most important part is to not stand in front of the airflow from anyone sick that’s coughing. NBC gasmasks also offers protection against airborne attacks and disease but it’s very hard to know when an attack is actually happening; it can be days before symptoms start to appear.

Tuberculosis - TB
10 million contracts TB every year, mainly in poorly developed countries and 3-4 million die each year from the disease. The disease is highly resistant against antibiotics; the normal treatment requires three form of antibiotics to be taken every day for six months. However in many parts of the world people don’t go through with the entire treatment and this causes resistant strains of TBC. There are some strains of TBC that are resistant to all forms of antibiotics. There is also a vaccine against TBC available and new ones are being developed. The data for how effective the current vaccine are varies but in some cases it may provide a protection up to 80% and the effect is believed to last for 15 years. The vaccine can cause lethal side effects, but this is very unusual and normally happens to person how another disease or a low immune system function.

The HIV/AIDS virus has gotten an enormous amount of attention in the Media. The HIV/AIDS virus is a Virus that attacks the human immune system and in time this causes the victims to die from secondary infections or cancer. If not treated patients normally die 10 years after they contracted the virus, the HIV/AIDS is basically deadly in all cases if not treated. There is however effective treatment that was introduced 1996 called HAART. These drugs are antiviral drugs that reduce the amount of virus people have in their system to a level that doesn’t present any health issues. There are side effects to this treatment and some people are allergic against the antiviral drugs, but most people how live in the western world don’t have health problems because of the virus. There is how ever an enormous social stigma to carry the disease and the antiviral drugs must be taken at a regular basis every day. Around 30-35 million people worldwide carry the HIV/AIDS virus, around 1,5 million of these cases are in North America. It’s been sad to many times but the best way to protect yourself is to use a condom and make regular checks at your doctor.

Cholera is the worst form of diarrheal disease that exists. It’s a very common disease that often follows war and disasters when the sanitation systems break down. The number of people how dies in this disease are normally under 5% but the disease will seriously weaken the person how get exposed and make them vulnerable to other infections. This is one of the major causes why hygiene, clean water and sanitation are very important after a disaster; this will reduce the risk that you contract this and many other diseases. There is a vaccine that offers around 80% protection. But the effect only last a few year, then new doses are required.

Recommended vaccination:
Booster against Tetanus
Tuberculosis - TB
Hepatitis A & B
Cholera if you’re going to a high risk area.
There are also regional diseases that there are vaccines against, always talk with your doctor for advice and a recommendation.

How is most vulnerable?
In general there are some categories of people how are more vulnerable to disease then other:
· Very young children
· Very old people
· Pregnant women
· People suffering from cancer
· Untreated persons with HIV and AIDS
· People suffering from Starvation or Famine

Threat Assessment
Biological organisms are a natural part of our world and we have developed different kind of medications and vaccines to cope with these problems. Bacteria may become a very serious problem in the future if antibiotics resistance continues to increase; the life expectancy may drop sharply around the world as a result if not new effective medicines are produced. Biological weapons may be genetically designed to have this resistance but in the long perspective I believe that natural resistance against antibiotics is a larger threat than genetically modified biological weapons. Should a new disease with high mortality breakout it’s important to understand that the sanitation system today will help to reduce the spread compared to the spread of plague in the 1300s. But modern communications like air travel may spread a disease very fast. It’s my belief that the current pandemic of swine flu will increase most countries ability to handle this form of crisis because valuable lessons have been learnt and people in general have become more aware of the threat and the importance of especially hand hygiene.

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