Facing anthrax scare with rational caution

Contaminated letters: Society must live with this peril of modern life as it does with others.

October 16, 2001

AMERICANS should react to the possibility of terrorism by anthrax spore as they have to such dangers as cancer from the sun and death on the highways - by proceeding with caution, even extreme caution, but not with panic.

A handful of incidents, including one involving mail contaminated by anthrax spores delivered to the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, had by yesterday caused evacuations and precautions across Europe, Asia and North America. A dozen people have been exposed to infection, and Robert Stevens in Boca Raton, Fla., died, presumably murdered by the sender.

Compounding this was an array of hoaxes across the world, letters containing harmless powder. These are unfunny crimes, tying up laboratory and police capacity needed for the real thing.

What's publicly known is little. The suspect envelopes are traced to New Jersey, Florida and Malaysia. The link between them, if any, is undiscovered.

Is this the work of al-Qaida terrorists, one person with grudges, copycats? That is not known. The presumption must be that someone sent a biological agent to infect, kill and frighten, so far on a small scale.

Larger chemical and biological terrorism has been attempted by cults in Japan and the United States. Biological warfare was developed during World War II by the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union. It was not used, but research continued for antidotes. It is within the capability of a small country.

Anthrax spores are omnipresent in concentrations harmless to humans. The disease is primarily a menace to livestock.

What has happened so far looks like a few biological letter-bombs. The FBI sought a terrorist whose letter bombs to technology workers killed three people and injured 23 from 1978 through 1995, and could not identify him.

The "Unabomber" campaign ended when Theodore J. Kaczynski's brother linked a previous writing of his to a Unabomber essay and turned him in. He was sentenced in 1998 to life in prison without possibility of parole.

The American people endured the Unabomber without panic. They may have to do so again.

One of the leading authorities on bioterrorism is Dr. D. A. Henderson, former dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Now heading the Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies at the school, Dr. Henderson is best known for heading the World Health Organization's eradication of smallpox.

A science adviser to the first President Bush, Dr. Henderson was recently named to chair an advisory council on bioterrorism by Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson. It is reassuring that the administration is seeking sound advice.

So far, the challenge to public health has been minimal, and expertly contained. More sustained challenges may lie ahead, and the nation must prepare for them.

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