By Robert Ross

Bioterrorism - A Little Planning Can Relieve Some Anxiety


“If bioterrorists attack the United States with smallpox virus, health authorities could impose measures as drastic as banning public events, halting regional transport and placing entire cities under quarantine, according to a draft federal plan released yesterday.”
— Washington Post, November 27, 2001


Things have changed since September 11. Thoughts of anthrax outbreaks are nestled between thoughts of what to serve for Thanksgiving dinner and where the family will gather for Christmas this year. Conversations at social gatherings cover topics like the local sports team and whether or not the American Airlines flight that crashed near JFK  was an act of terror  or a mechanical plane failure. And driving across the Coronado bridge or the Golden Gate bridge has taken on a whole new significance since the California governor identified them as possible terrorist targets. Smallpox, anthrax, plague, plane crashes, targeted bridges . . . things have definitely changed since September 11!

Anxiety City
My wife will be the first to tell you that I have a bad case of “catastrophic thinking.”  It must be genetic or something, but throw out a scenario, any scenario, and my mind will immediately cover the worst aspects of that event. Unfortunately (for those around me), I usually end up expressing this catastrophic thinking verbally. I’m constantly reminded that my thinking is “negative.” But, for me, if you can deal with the worst aspects of an event, then the rest is a piece of cake.

Be prepared is the Boy Scout’s motto. As far as mottos go, it couldn’t be more appropriate during these times. The following is what I’ve done to be prepared for the worst case scenario — after all, if you’ve got that covered, the rest is a  piece of cake!

Basic Necessities
California is known for many things. The possibility of an earthquake is high on that list for what we, in the golden state, are famous. If you couple earthquakes with the potential for a terrorist attack, it seems reasonable to me that having a couple of weeks of food, water and emergency supplies around the house is wise and prudent. So, after checking my kitchen cabinets and storage areas and a trip to the local convenience store, it appeared that with some creative cooking (and dieting!), in an emergency we could stretch things out for a month or so in this household.

So far, being prepared was looking quite easy.

On November 27, U.S. Army General, Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. military operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, said that U.S. officials had identified more than 40 sites in Afghanistan where bin Laden’s network may have been researching nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

It’s fair to assume that at some point in time this research might (if it hasn’t already) be put to use. If it is put to use, are we ready as a nation? And am I doing all I can to be prepared?

Anthrax! I wish I could say that preparing for anthrax exposure is as easy as preparing for an earthquake. Anthrax is lethal, no matter how you look at it. Former Secretary of Defense Cohen illustrated this point on TV one day by saying that a five-pound bag of anthrax, if properly dispersed, could kill perhaps half of the population of Washington, D.C.

After watching the T.V. news, and seeing how anthrax is being dealt with on the east coast, it appears that if diagnosed soon enough after exposure, and one is given the proper antibiotics like Cipro (ciprofloxacin hydrochloride), survival is assured.

Now, with my ever present catastrophic thinking clicking in . . . what if . . . what if a large amount of people are exposed to anthrax, say hundreds of thousands or millions in an area like San Diego or Los Angeles? Are our medical facilities prepared to diagnose and disperse antibiotics on short order to tens of thousands or millions of people? Hmm . . . maybe it’s time I called my physician for a consultation. I was curious to see if I could secure a prescription of Cipro to have for “an emergency.”

After discussing my catastrophic thoughts with my physician, he informed me that he was not giving out prescriptions for Cipro. He probably thought a prescription for a tranquilizer was more in order, but was kind enough not to mention it.

So much for my attempts at preparation!

Smallpox! An outbreak of smallpox worries me the most. It’s contagious, deadly, and the country is not yet prepared. We will be, according to Tom Ridge, Director of Homeland Security, in about a year, when the three hundred million vaccines that are currently in production will be ready for distribution. Until then, if an outbreak occurs, we’re at the mercy of our medical authorities and perhaps the military, if martial law is declared. Smallpox worries me. Having said that, while in the checkout line at my local health food store, a health magazine had an article on . . . you guessed it . . . bioterrorism, and how to prepare. One of the subsections of the article covered smallpox and anthrax. The article suggested taking some natural vitamin/herb type substances to beef up the immune system in case of a bio-emergency. Although I’m a believer in vitamins and herbs, for some reason, the article wasn’t reassuring.

Again, so much for my attempts at preparation!

Radiation Exposure! Living close to a nuclear power plant has always concerned me a bit. Apparently it has concerned others too. Shortly after the September 11 attack, our local nuclear  plant, San Onofre, was put on the highest security alert.

So how does one prepare for the possibility of radiation exposure?  I did some research and found that if a radiation leak were to occur, as it did at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, there was a substance available that would inhibit radioactive iodine from saturating one’s thyroid gland, thus reducing dramatically the probability of thyroid cancer and various other diseases occurring at a future date. Apparently I wasn’t the only one searching for answers to these radiation exposure questions. The substance I was looking for (which was written about in The Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2001), was Potassium Iodide  and/or Potassium Iodate. According to the New England Journal of Medicine “The thyroid gland is especially vulnerable to atomic injury since radioactive isotopes of iodine are a major component of fallout.” I called a number of pharmacies in town, only to find out that Potassium Iodide and/or Potassium Iodate (both are non-prescription items) weren’t carried in stock. Being prepared wasn’t as easy as I had thought it would be. I returned to the internet and was able to order Potassium Iodate (KI03) online.

In my research and planning, I was able to quell two of my concerns, having enough food and supplies around the house to handle a short-term emergency, and having some Potassium Iodate  around in case radiation exposure occurs. My bigger concerns, anthrax and smallpox are still gnawing at me.

In the process of doing my research for this column, I came to the conclusion that we’re still quite vulnerable as a nation. We’ll be less vulnerable when enough  smallpox  vaccine is produced to meets the needs of the nation and when our medical establishment fine tunes its planning for dealing with large — I mean very large exposures to bio-terror agents. But until that time comes, I will continue fine tuning my own planning.

Catastrophic thinking has its benefits, especially when it comes to planning for some of the worst case terrorist scenarios that we’ve recently been exposed to via the internet and the mainstream media.

Let’s hope that all of this planning is for naught and that we, as a nation, pass through this experience a little wiser and a little stronger.

Copyright 2002 by Robert Ross, all rights reserved.

Robert Ross can be reached by e-mail at  

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