Thursday, July 2, 2015

Growing Threats of Biological Warfare

Dr Abe V Rotor
Living with Nature School on Blog
Paaralang Bayan sa Himpapawid (People's School-on-Air) with Ms Melly C Tenorio
738 DZRB AM Band, 8 to 9 evening class Monday to Friday
 Convalescing patients of the Spanish Flu of 1920 in NY.  An estimated number of 100 million people died from this mysterious virus - more than all victims of the Bubonic Plague, or those killed in the two world wars combined.  One out of 6 people on earth then succumbed to the disease. The epidemic suddenly ended as fast as it became an epidemic two years before. 

International epidemic signs: radiation, chemical and biological 

 As an aftermath of the catastrophic 9/11 bombing of the Twin Towers in New York, the US Postal Service ordered gloves and masks and irradiation systems for key mail-sorting facilities in Washington, New York and New Jersey, but questions as to whether these measures to prevent anthrax from spreading via mails are effective or not remain unresolved. Does zapping letters and packages with radiation really kill anthrax spores? What is the downside to irradiation? Are the postal workers really protected from anthrax and other biological warfare germs?

- As a precaution the US government has accelerated the delivery of 40 million doses of smallpox vaccine to add to the 15.4 million doses already stored. These will be enough to inoculate every American. One drawback is the possibility of side effects of the vaccine particularly to those receiving other medical treatments such as chemotherapy.

- African killer bees (Apis mellifera scutellata) claimed to have escaped from a laboratory have interbred with the domestic species creating an equally deadly hybrid that now threatens the US after spreading throughout Brazil, Central America and Mexico. A colony is made up of some 70,000 ferocious bees with the queen bee reproducing up to 5,000 a day to maintain this enormous population.

E. coli is a familiar intestinal parasite. Naturally occurring outbreaks of Escherischia coli typically the result of fecal contamination in anything from hamburgers to swimming pools, sicken hundreds of thousands of people each year. What really trigger the outbreak of E. coli? What caused the epidemic that hit Tokyo three years ago?
Acknowlegement: National Geographic, Internet  
As I ponder over these scenarios I remember when I was a child seeing many people who were survivors of smallpox epidemic. The center of the epidemic was a town whose population was decimated. The mere mention of its name rings the sad memory of the early 1900s’ disaster. Lapog became virtually synonymous with the name of the dreaded disease. It was later renamed San Juan (Ilocos Sur).

My father told me that of the eight siblings in the family, only two of them survived the disease. Uncle Leo who was the oldest miraculously survived, and my dad who was the youngest was born after the epidemic had subsided.

In my mind I still can picture the faces of a dozen survivors. Pockmarks cover their faces, and may also cover the body, arms and legs, including the ears, nose, eyelids and lips which become somehow disfigured. Fingers and toes are deformed in serious cases.

But I remember how these survivors continued to live normal lives. I remember them as happy and hardworking in spite of the traumatic experiences they went through. Psychologists say there are many survivors of tragic experiences who find the new lease in life a new opportunity. Stories on how whole communities rise with these survivors uplift the spirit. I saw this miracle happen in the family and community I was brought up. Many people in many places I believe, can overcome painful experiences with this kind of spirit.

Conquest and Diseases

Christopher Columbus and his men allegedly introduced syphilis in the New World. The meeting of East and West during the era of colonization also resulted in the exchange of diseases. James Michener’s novel, Hawaii, relates how smallpox caused death and sufferings to the natives. To the novel’s principal character, the Reverend Hale, it was a manifestation of God’s wrath on the sinful and the non-converts. While this incident helped him in his mission, the end proved that the English missionary was wrong - that God is not a God of vengeance. 

Whole settlements in the New World just perished to indigenous diseases that were unknown in their countries of origin. Scientists explain that these pioneers lacked the natural immunity to the diseases, in the same manner that diseases introduced into the Old World killed many people similarly because they did not have the natural resistance. This is the basis why for many years until recently, the World Health Organization and many countries required the vaccination of travelers against certain diseases as a requirement in obtaining passports and visas.

These are of course incidents that we can dismiss as force majeure or historical events, which our faith and culture may accept. But what about in the case of war when man is pitted against man, nation against nation?

By the year 2000, the human race reached a sort of historical landmark, when for the first time in human evolution the number of adults with excess weight surpassed the number of those who were underweight. Excess adiposity/body weight is now widely recognized as one of today's leading health threats in most countries around the world and as a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension).
-  Benjamin Caballero, The Global Epidemic of Obesity: An Overview, American Journal of Epidemiology
Man’s Inhumanity to Man

How different it is to think about war. Since biblical times war has always been associated with inhumanity – man’s inhumanity to man. It is the antithesis of culture, of civilization, the very institution that is supposed to eliminate this treat to society. Ironically war has plagued every civilization, and many a great civilization has been the center of human conflict like the epicenter of an earthquake. According to the historian Gibbon twelve great civilizations that include the Greek and Roman civilizations fell because of war. They never recovered again.

History is not replete of the fact that the more civilized societies have been the cause of the loss of peace, if not the whole destruction of the less civilized ones. The great Spanish conquistadores forever destroyed the great civilizations of the Aztecs and the Mayas, in the same way that the pioneers in the West forever destroyed the American Indians.

Early Biological Warfare

Carthage a thriving agricultural and trading center during the times of the Roman became swamp and subsequently into desert that we know today. How did this happen? The invading Romans drew saltwater into land flooding settlements and fertile lands, thus finally putting to end the powerful enemy.

How The West Was Won, is a story of the destruction of the American Indian civilization which had been flourishing for many centuries. The natives fought fiercely at the European invaders and defended their “nation” for years. But the pioneers knew exactly the key to their victory over the powerful Indian tribes - to annihilate the buffaloes, millions of them that roamed the Great Plains or what is known as the prairies. Because buffaloes provided the Indians their basic needs from food to shelter, famine ensued and the great American Indian civilization was ultimately reduced into marginal settlements. Buffalo Bill is reported to have killed more than three hundred buffaloes in a single day for which he earned his name and “reputation.”

What if China’s threat to send one million Chinese to fight and die in Vietnam had come true? I heard of this story during the Chinese-Vietnam conflict that preceded the Vietnam war. Should such unthinkable strategy happen, the task of burying the dead alone, more so in controlling pestilence, would certainly render the enemy country defenseless and economically bankrupt. On the part of the triumphant country it shall have somehow reduced pressure on its burgeoning population and rid the misfits. Many believe that war is a purification process of a society. Definitely it is not. The Germans lost thousands of scientists in World War II. Many soldiers who died in the Vietnam War were among the finest of the youth of their time in their respective countries.

But man has not had lessons enough. And war in its most ugly form using chemicals, biological agents, nuclear and ultramodern tools, is with us and it is all over the world now. For nuclear arsenals alone, the world’s total stockpile has the capacity to kill three times the whole population of the world. The world is witness to the recent wars in Iraq, Bosnia and Macedonia, Uganda and Angola and Afghanistan. It is happening with the Tamil Guerillas in Sri Lanka, along the Pakistan-Indian border, the Basques guerillas, the IRA in Northern Ireland, and other parts of the world. It is happening in our home ground with the Abu Sayaf and the NDF-NPA. War has many faces indeed.

War Without Borders

Something unexpected and different happened. On September 11, 2005 year the World Trade Center, a 110-storey twin-tower was erased from the skyscraper map in matters of minutes shortly after two planes commandeered by terrorists smashed into the superstructure signaling the vulnerability of our present system of capitalism. It challenged the economic powers of the world, particularly America.

The world woke up into a new age hitherto unpredicted - the age of Terrorism and the birth of a new nation without political boundary, but an invisible organizational network with its tentacles reaching global proportion.

This time intrusion into the enemy’s territory or defining the place of battle does not follow the conventional rules anymore. In fact there are no specific rules when we refer to the modus operandi of terrorists. Scenarios of war have thus changed after the September 11 attack.

This paper concentrates on the tools of biological warfare. Here are some of them.

First there is anthrax, the most serious and the first to hit the headlines after the bombing of the World Trade Center. It leads a dozen of similarly devastating epidemics of biological warfare potential.

Second, there is an attempt to revive bubonic plague that killed one-third of the world’s population in the Middle Ages. It was the Japanese who experimented in the making of bubonic flea bombs intended to spread the plague in major USA cities. The project was to breed the fleas which harbor the plague bacteria in its body, then scatter these to infest rats and other animals in the target area where they in turn multiply and transmit the pathogen to the residents. The bomb was successfully tested in China with hundreds of Chinese succumbing to the bubonic plague bacteria. Preparations were then made to attack the US. But the US had decided to drop the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bubonic flea bombs were never used. Japan hastily removed all the evidences of its evil experiment even before its surrender to the US.

Third, the threat of influenza which killed several millions at the first part of the twentieth century in the US and many parts of the globe has caused alarm as early as the 1980s after discovering a new strain of virus, a hybrid of the chicken and human influenza viruses. Based on the ratio of victims with the population in the first epidemic, scientists are looking at the possibility that some 60 to 100 million people could die of the new influenza virus strain should it strike in our times. In spite of utmost precaution to stave off the epidemic, scientists believe that we are not yet off the hook.

Biological warfare intends to use germs with historical epidemic background. Here is an outline of the basic facts about these most important potential epidemic diseases.


Photomicrograph of a Gram stain of the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, the cause of the anthrax disease. Wikipedia 

• Also known as malignant pustule, malignant edema or woodsorters’ disease

• Most common in South America, Australia, Africa and Russia

• Highly infectious disease of animals, occurring especially in cattle, sheep and other ruminants, horses and mules as well.

• Transmitted to humans through contact with any part of the inside or outside of the animal carrying the infectious agent

• Caused by Bacillus anthracis whose spores which are resistant to disinfectants and heat, may remain infectious even after 15 years in soil. Grazing animals can accumulate spores contained in the droppings of infected animals

• Humans acquire the disease through cut or wound of the skin, by eating infected meat, or by breathing in the spores contained in the dust emanating from the sick animal’s hide or hair

• Skin infection characterized by severe itching and appearance of boil, usually on the arm, face and neck. The inflamed area grows into an ulcer called a malignant pustule, which eventually bursts and produced a black scab. Fever, nausea and swelling of the lymph glands are accompanying symptoms

• Internal anthrax acquired through inhalation results in acute pneumonia. When infected meat is ingested symptoms of acute gastroenteritis occur

• Anthrax is effectively treated with antibiotics. Immunization against the disease has been made possible through the use of vaccine. Effective livestock management is key to the control in the spread of the disease.

Bubonic Plague

Signs of Bubonic Plague - swelling of lymph nodes in groin, armpit, and other parts of the body; flea (Xenopsylla chopis) carrier of the pathogen Yersina pestis, a bacterium. Rat carries the flea, flea carries the bacterium - to man.

o Known as the Black Death in the Middle Ages which ravaged Europe and Asia

o In some places as many as two-thirds of the entire population died

o So-called from the blackening spots which broke out from the skin during the course of the disease

o Characteristic symptoms are fever and swelling of the lymph nodes mainly the groin and armpit

o It is caused by the plague bacillus (Pasteurella pestis) which is transmitted from sick rats (Rattus rattus norvigicus) to humans by flea bites (Xenopsylola chopis)
Small pox

Smallpox is an infectious disease caused by either of two virus variants, Variola major and Variola minor. The disease is also known by the Latin names ... Rinderpest 

• Highly contagious, often fatal that once ravaged mankind in epidemics. Just one infected person could cause the virus to radiate from a family to a neighborhood to a city in a matter of months.

• Smallpox cannot be treated effectively once symptoms begin. 30 percent of those infected will die.

• WHO declared the eradicated of smallpox in 1980. Routine immunization for protection against the disease was stopped as early as 1971.

• First signs: chills and high fever, severe headache and backache, followed by rash which eventually covers the entire body and turns into pus-filled blisters

• The blisters in turn dry up to form scabs which very often leave pockmarks.

• The disease may be accompanied by vomiting, convulsion and diarrhea Complications include other skin infections such as boils and abscesses, ear infections, pneumonia and heart failure

• Disease is not transmitted by animals

• Disease has been eliminated through world wide vaccination programs, although a mild form still exist in Ethiopia

• The disease has been largely eliminated by extermination of rats. Antibiotics such as oxytetracycline, streptomycin and chloramphenicol are effective in its treatment

Other Potential Bio-Warfare Organisms

There are many organisms that can be used in biological warfare. A terrorist attack aimed at crops and livestock would be less dramatic but might cause more disruption in the long run.
Potato Blight – also called late blight, a worldwide serious disease of potato and tomato in cool humid countries caused by a fungus, Phyhtopthora infestans In Ireland 30 percent of the population starved to death, died of typhoid fever that followed - or emigrated during the period 1845 to 1860. Tomato blight caused by the same fungus destroyed 50 percent of the crop in Eastern US in 1946.

Rust Fungi - There are species of Puccinia affecting ceraeals and among them which is Puccinia graminis tritici consists of 200 such races to which wheat varieties are differentially susceptible. Although rust fungi are host specific and can only complete their life cycle in the presence of alternate host such as barberry in wheat rust, the potential fore biological warfare is great to consider that cereals comprise the staple of the mankind. The narrowing down of varieties for commercial cultivation exposes greater danger of rust diseases to spread out into epidemics.

Salmonella - In 1984 a cult in Oregon set off a wave of food poisonings. Gastroenteritis caused by natural contamination and careless food handling afflicts millions and results in 5000 deaths each year. Salmonella is a large group of rod shaped bacteria that invade the gastrointestinal tract, among them typhoid and paratyphoid germs.

Antibiotics are recommended to combat Salmonella infection. A recent incident happened in Rizal when hundreds of children who ate spoiled spaghetti were hospitalized. The religious group, which sponsored the feeding program, admitted fault to the incident. A similar case also happened two years ago. The owner of seven-eleven apologized for the incident and paid the victims.

Foot-and-Mouth Disease – The disease affects hoof animals from hogs to cattle. Its natural occurrence is worldwide and we have our own season in the Philippines that is during summer. Although the pathogen is not transmitted from animals to humans, losses incurred are usually heavy with the infected animal economically worthless.

Like in the case of mad cow disease, and chicken flu that affects humans, the infected animals are destroyed to prevent infection. Quarantine and an extreme sanitation program are the best defense in curbing the spread of the disease.

Mad Cow Disease – It is called bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE that has been determined in 1996 to infect humans in the form of a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). Eighty people in Britain have died of CJD and there is no data to show how many more will die because there are initial signs of acquiring the disease are not clear and that the gestation period of the virus before it reaches the brain is up to 15 years. It originated in Britain crippling the country’s giant cattle industry, then spread to the European and now it has reached Japan threatening some 4.6 million cows.

 Early symptoms of mad cow disease is that the animal cannot get up; areas where mad cow disease associated with CJD which 
ther biological warfare agents include potato beetles, which Britain suspected the Germans for dropping small cardboards bombs filled with the beetle pest on English potato fields. In the 1980s Tamil militants threatened to target Sri Lankan tea and rubber plantations with plant pathogens.

HIV-AIDS – So far 17 million have died and at least 25 million may follow. The heart of the epidemic is at the lower quadrant of Africa. AIDS is anti-Darwinian – it is society’s fittest who die, not the frailest, thus leaving the children and old behind. But recently more and more children become victims. There are 3.7 million children who have died of AIDS and AIDS has orphaned 12 million children.

An estimated 8.8 million adults in Africa are infected with HIV/AIDS and in the seven countries in Africa 1 out of 5 is living with HIV and 3.8 millions Africans are infected every year. There are 36 million adults and children in the world living with HIV/AIDS. Bioterrorism may be eyeing at the spread of the disease in the industrialized countries through the blood donation and immunization channels, other means notwithstanding.

Ebola – It is a highly virulent disease caused by a virus that originated in Africa infecting human and primates. Much of the information about the disease is a mystery but one thing sure is that it is almost one hundred percent fatal once a person gets the virus.

Contact of any kind, and even only through inhalation, the virus can be acquired in no time. One incident showed a member of a religious congregation who had been treating ebola patients suddenly died. Ignoring warnings other members attended her funeral. One of them got the virus and died later.

African Giant Snail (Achatina fulica) – brought by the Japanese to the Philippine during WW II. Pest of garden and field crops. Damage can lead to crop loss and consequently starvation. The pest persists to this day but seldom develops into epidemic proportion. The introduced Golden Kuhol thought to provide livelihood on the farm became a major pest affecting more than 50 percent of our lowland ricefields.

Protection Guidelines

Here are guidelines to protect yourself.

1. Keep distance from possible sources of biochemical materials such as spores of the deadly anthrax. Be wary of suspicious parcels.

2. Get help from authorities to get rid of suspicious looking materials. Curiosity kills the cat.

3. Be familiar with the locations of Bomb Shelters. Such shelters are found in big cities like New York, Tokyo and Tel Aviv. We do not have one in Manila, but there are places and buildings you can find temporary shelter in case of attack.

4. Don’t loiter in centralized air-conditioned places like malls. Avoid crowds and busy streets if you can.

5. Early symptoms should be treated immediately by a doctor. Anthrax for example has flu-like symptoms.

6. Keep resistance high all the time. Good rest, balanced diet, regular exercise are key to resistance against diseases.

7. Don’t be a victim of psychological war. Terrorism thrives on it. We have yet to coin a word for biochemical phobia.

8. Like Boy Scouts, remember “Always be Prepared” – for your own protection. Equally important be prepared always to help other people.

On September 11 (9/11) many people thought Third World War had started. Well, the big wars we know started small. In our modern world an all out war is likely to employ all kinds of warfare – chemical and biological – and worst is the use of nuclear weapons. There are no defined borders and everyone is a potential victim. It will be difficult to detect the enemy and the tools of war he will use. The “morning after” exposes further destruction. Nuclear weapons have long years of half-life. It means radioactive materials will continue to kill, to make people sick. Even to this day, there are people in Japan where the atomic bombs were dropped 45 years dying due to radioactive fallout.

This is also true with bacterial spores. They have the capacity to re-infect and cause a second or third wave of epidemic. Even after the white flag is raised, still many people continue to get sick and die – physically and psychologically. In many cases it is beyond medicine to cure – or science to explain.

In early 1960s I was part of a research program at UPLB, then UP College of Agriculture, in promoting modern agriculture to farmers. Among the farm chemicals I handled were herbicides. By coincidence the US was developing a chemical called Orange Agent that I found out later was to be used in Vietnam. While this chemical can maim or cause death, its intended use is as a defoliant. By spraying the chemical trees lose their leaves, in fact their entire crown. When this happens a jungle would easily catch fire and in no time spreads out flushing the Vietcong guerillas from their hideouts.

It was my first encounter with biological warfare. The memory does not only linger, it has remained fresh.

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