To most, the word "Anthrax" now conjures images of terrorism, sickness and death. This old, oft-cited, but rarely seen disease made headlines recently as a potential terrorist weapon, with the worst possibility being thousands of deaths in mere minutes using crop dusters.
But is anthrax really the threat that some media outlets suggest? Or is it just another ratings-generator-of-the-month like Gary Condit, Walkerton, Monica Lewinsky or OJ Simpson? How secure is the University of Calgary, and how safe is Canada, from such an attack?
In reality, very few people have fallen victim to anthrax infections before and after September 11. More people die annually from the flu than anthrax infections according to the World Health Organization. Even so, people maintain disproportionate fears toward anthrax, but this is likely because they are uninformed of the nature of the disease.
What is anthrax?
"Anthrax is a bacterial disease of livestock acquired by animals from contaminated grazing land," said Don Woods, Professor of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, and Scientific director of the Canadian Bacterial Diseases Network. Humans can acquire anthrax in three ways: by ingesting infected meat (gastrointestinal), by getting it in broken skin (cutaneous), or by inhaling it (inhalation).
The spore form of Bacillus anthracis is the form most commonly weaponized because of its durability in the environment and its virulence in hosts. Much of what is known about the infectious nature of anthrax comes from Cold War era research by both the West and the Soviet Union. Estimates by Health Canada–based on this and other published research–of the number of spores required for inhaled anthrax infection range anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 spores. Health Canada notes that exposure to spores does not necessarily mean infection.
"Those numbers are achievable," said Woods. "Anyone with knowledge about how to grow bacteria can usually grow reasonably large quantities. Whether they can convert that into a weapon is very much different. If you want to use it as an inhalational weapon, it’s not as simple as growing up a large quantity and spraying them. You have to have the appropriate particle size or it’s not going to initiate infection."
Particle size is key as heavy particles settle to the ground and become ineffective, and large particles are easily expelled by the respiratory system before the lungs become infected.
"While inhalational anthrax is the most serious with almost 100 per cent mortality, it’s also the most rare," said Woods. "The most common form of the disease is cutaneous anthrax, known for many years as ‘wool sorters disease’ because it’s found on the surfaces of animals and people come into [contact when] animals are sheared."
Cutaneous and gastrointestinal anthrax infections are non-fatal when treated early with antibiotics. Infection is largely preventable by vaccination.
While Woods and his co-workers were vaccinated because they may encounter it in the laboratory setting, Woods does not recommend anthrax vaccinations for everyone because of the low risk of infection in Canada, and the 18-month vaccination regimen involved.
"All immunizations should account for the cost-benefit ratio. And in terms of potential exposure to the agent, I don’t think the risk of exposure for the entire population would warrant everyone being immunized against anthrax. Furthermore, there’s not enough vaccine available in Canada."
There are an estimated 100,000 vaccine dosages available in Canada, with priority given to those who are likely to encounter anthrax in their jobs.
While Campus Security has no plans to vaccinate its officers, it is taking steps to inform mail handlers on campus of the potential threat. Campus Security met with Risk Management, Safety Services, and management from the mail room on Tuesday to evaluate the threat.
"Basically we discussed how we might deal with inquires from staff dealing with either suspicious or suspect packages given the recent anthrax scares," said Campus Security Manager Lanny Fritz. "What has changed is that we’re going to address the area and the subject with the staff and try and stay ahead of the curve."
While awareness has increased, Campus Security’s response to a potential anthrax incident would be identical to their response to any other hazardous materials contamination.
"Nothing has changed in terms of how we might respond. If we were to get a call about a suspicious package of whatever kind, typically we would go to the area and try to isolate it by evacuating the area of staff or students or both. We may end up isolating the staff person and, if appropriate, cordon off the area and set up a perimeter. Of course we’d call Calgary Police and the Fire Department’s Hazardous Materials team if that was applicable."
According to Fritz, there is no reason to believe that the campus would be specifically targeted by terrorists.
"There was a bomb scare three years ago, in Mac Hall, during exam week. No package was found. For a community population this size, and since it’s been three years since we’ve had that type of call, that tells us this isn’t too terribly frequent. There’s no reason to believe that’s going to change. We have no reason to believe that the U of C should for whatever reason be a target for anybody."
Despite the low possibilities, the fear of an anthrax attack has taken hold.
Could it Happen?
"Canadians, for the first time in a long time, are feeling their own personal security being threatened," said Rob Huebert, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Associate Director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies. "It’s had a very noticeable effect on the general population."
Huebert cites two major effects of the anthrax threat.
"One is the widespread tension developing amongst the population. Some are calling it hysteria but I don’t think it is. You can detect the tension by the number of calls to police about receiving white powder and by the coverage in the media and by the general conversations people have.
"The second less observed effect that is no less important, is that it’s also driving home the lesson that Canada is not immune from these threats of international terrorism. No terrorist attacks have occurred on Canadian soil, but the attacks in the U.S. make it very clear an attack can occur very easily. It has also illustrated the difficulty and the challenges that we would face in dealing with such a threat."
Huebert noted threats could come from a variety of sources including terrorists and "crackpots" with no rational motives for attacking, and opportunists like right-wing Christian fundamentalists who send fake anthrax to abortion clinics. However, Osama bin Laden’s network remains Huebert’s prime concern.
"We haven’t seen any evidence at this point of Osama bin Laden’s group having their own internal ability to weaponize anthrax," said Huebert. "Their abilities lie in organization and acquiring from other sources. They didn’t have to build the aircraft they crashed into the World Trade Centre, they just had to learn to operate it and how to get into it. In the case of getting a more potent form of anthrax, what would be required is knowing who to go to, who would have stock piles, who would have access to this. Some analysts–and this is hotly disputed–suggest some of the ex-Soviet research centres that were developing this can’t account for all their stock after the Soviet Union broke up."
Unlike Woods, Huebert calls the threat of an anthrax attack by terrorists a legitimate concern. Huebert cites differences in information provided by various sources as the cause for confusion about the true threat posed by an anthrax attack.
"On the one hand, you don’t want to fuel the fears the general population has," said Huebert. "On the other hand, can I say ‘there is no reason to worry, that there’s not a threat here?’ I can’t say that. The possibility of a threat does exist. We know somebody is mailing anthrax in the United States with the attacks on the Senate offices and media outlets. Somebody is doing it, so it’s not just a threat, it’s an actual fact."
Not only do media attacks increase coverage of the attacks because the attacks were against one of their own, the agents used in the attacks pose a threat to Canadians by drifting across the border. While no one has yet targeted Canada, it is also potentially under threat, noted Huebert. A part of that threat may come from bin Laden and his terrorist network.
"Bin Laden has shown a very disturbing tendency to practice his attacks first. We know that the hijackers from September 11 worked over the summer to see in a peaceful way how they could access the cockpits. What that indicates to us–if these reports are correct–is that he and his associates obviously try to find the weak points. The real threat to us is if these anthrax attacks and being carried out as practice runs by bin Laden. And if they are indeed practice runs, is there a possibility that a much larger scale is being planned, perhaps not necessarily using anthrax?"
Despite the lack of information about the true nature of the threat, Huebert said objectivity should be maintained.
"We should pay attention to all possibilities and ensure the reaction is proportional to the threat. We’re only going to figure this out by continuing to debate and address the issue. If we think that the government is perhaps not doing enough, we should make them aware. If we think the government is sacrificing civil liberties for security, we should make that known. The basic element of the university should be to educate about the threat and to engage in informed public debate."