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Anthrax Scare: Bioterrorism and Politics

Aired October 15, 2001 - 06:37   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Fighting bioterrorism is more than just a dicey proposition. It's also a costly one. President Bush plans to ask Congress today for more than $1 1/2 billion to wage that war. Part of the president's bioterrorism plan includes embarking 643 million to expand the nation's medication stockpile.

That includes buying enough anthrax antibiotics to treat 12 million people for 60 days.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Well let's talk some more about bioterrorism and perhaps its relationship with politics and the medium, whatever.

Joining us now is author and teacher Leonard Cole. He wrote the book "The Eleventh Play: The Politics of Biological and Chemical Warfare." Dr. Cole, we thank you very much for your time this morning.

I'd first of all like to ask you about these attacks -- the anthrax that's been showing up at various media outlets. Now in your mind and from all that you've studied about bioterrorism, is that a logical first strike for any bioterrorist to go to some media outlet first and not perhaps target a politician.

DR. LEONARD COLE, RUTGERS UNIVERSITY: Well I don't know that the choice would be one versus the other in terms of the publicity one gets, but it's clear that a terrorist would like to make sure that whatever horror he's trying to inflict gets around -- the word gets around very quickly, and I guess the media would be real near the top of the list for anything of that sort.

HARRIS: Well the word that officials have been putting out over the -- over the weekend is that there is no link -- there is no observable link right now between these anthrax cases and any real bioterrorism. Are you as convinced as these officials are trying to sound themselves?

COLE: It's very hard to say. We don't know what the source is and until we actually know, everything is speculative. I am concerned that the proximity to the September 11th date involves all of these attacks. In fact, the one -- the very first one that was reported in Florida, at least suspiciously, would have occurred because the letter was sent before September 11th, and keep in mind we haven't seen any more than 18 pulmonary cases of anthrax in the United States through the whole 20th Century.

Now to first see one person contract the pulmonary anthrax and die and then several others who have some evidence of the spore being in contact with them, this is of some concern.

HARRIS: Yes but there's also something of a tradition of a copycatting in this country too -- is there not?

COLE: Absolutely. Anything that happened after September 11th and certainly on an ongoing basis, yes you could say that it would possibly a copycat or more likely a copycat. Again, I don't put too much weight in terms of the damage that potentially can come from the kind of operations that have been started other than to scare the dickens out of people, and I do believe we've overreacted understandably.

I mean people have a right to be worried and concerned, but it is not something that one should think of by way of going out and getting gas masks or special shelters or even looking for stockpiling Cipro.

HARRIS: Yes, I'll let you put your earpiece back in when I ask you this one question because you mentioned the gas masks. We've had stories on for the past few days about people by the hundreds going out and trying to buy them.

Are you -- do you think that's an actual viable -- I guess method of protection for families and all to go out and do this at all. Do you think it makes sense at all?

COLE: Well almost all of the cases but one so far we know of has to do with spores that have either been on the skin or in the nostrils that have not reached the lungs. Cutaneous or skin anthrax is something that is imminently treated with antibiotics even after symptoms appear.

It's foolish to stockpile on something that you're never going to use and never would have valued using. On the other hand, a doctor, medical help authorities would surely be able to diagnose at this point with all of the news and information about cutaneous anthrax in plenty of time to provide the proper antibiotic. And I want to emphasize that while Cipro is generally seen as the antibiotic of first choice, that's not true for all potential people who would have been exposed to anthrax.

Little children should not be receiving Cipro. There are other very effective antibiotics that could be used as well.

HARRIS: Let me ask you this one thing I really haven't heard that much discussion about and it's not about breathing it. What about ingesting anthrax or some other biological agent or chemical agent? Are you concerned at all that perhaps the nation's water supply or there is some sort of, I don't know, maybe the supplies in store shelves and somehow may be affected and is there any way to protect yourselves against that?

COLE: Well you've put in a lot of possibilities in that question. In terms of the water supply, most -- certainly large communities have a filtration system chlorination, which would take care of most organisms and the truth is that if you have a reservoir especially it takes some time between the time that say a terrorist would try to dump some botulinum toxin or something into the reservoir before it would even ever get to the faucet of your house.

And by then, a lot of natural breakdown would occur -- a reservoir outdoors, sunlight, ultraviolet light destroys these potential organisms or toxins.

In terms of meat, anthrax is not endemic in the human population to a large extent. I mean as I said before, we have -- we have 18 cases in all of the 20th Century from pulmonary anthrax and maybe an average of four or five a year for cutaneous, which is, as I say 99 percent curable if you get antibiotics.

So the reason that we have any anthrax is that the spore naturally lies in the soil in certain parts of the country, certain parts of the world. Livestock animals as they graze and feed, they can stir up some of the spores. They eat it and they become infected. So it is possible that you could conceivably have anthrax infected meat, but the first thing to know is that we do have a food and health system in this country that protects us including well-cooked meat, but even before it gets there, there are food inspectors.

HARRIS: I'm glad you got that final good word in there to sort of ease the fears that have running rapid in the last few days. Dr. Leonard Cole, thank you very much, appreciate the time and the expertise this morning.




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