There They Go Again

Published December 1, 2001

Nature abhors a vacuum. That’s why the media must fill every second of air time and every column inch of page space.

But where the talking heads and instant experts are concerned, nature apparently loves the vacuous and the vaguely alarmist, the alarmingly vague, and those genuine experts struggling to explain it all in 30 seconds or 750 words or less.

Putting the Threat in Perspective

By now, no doubt, you’ve been utterly over-anthraxed by the media. (If only words could inoculate, we’d all be immune.) But chances are that you and yours, and everybody else’s, are still alive and well. Let’s put these bad bugs into perspective and try to separate fact from fairy tale.

First of all, don’t paralyze yourself with worry. Maintain perspective. WorldNet Daily’s Paul Sperry recently offered an excellent perspective. As he noted, even the 6,000 people killed directly by the suicidal airplane hijackers on September 11 aren’t as many as the children who died that same day—and die every day around the world—from malaria preventable by DDT.

Please also remember that we Americans number almost 300,000,000. Only a minuscule fraction of us were even exposed to anthrax during the events of the past three months. Even if terrorists attack America again, you’re still much more likely, statistically speaking, to suffer a serious heart attack or traffic accident than to fall victim to a terrorist attack.

Driving while tired or distracted, not to mention yakking on your cell phone, is far more dangerous than what we’ve seen of germ warfare so far. There’s no way to know for sure, of course, but we suspect more people will die from uncommon fatal reactions to Cipro and vaccinations than from germs released by terrorists.

Why Anthrax?

The germ du jour is anthrax because, ounce for ounce, it has the potential to be the most lethal of all germs—but if, and only if, the germs are prepared in exactly the right way.

The recipe has to be just right, not too hot and not too cold. The germs must be spread in just the right size, not too big and not too small. They must be delivered with the wind just right, and without any rain. To cook up a batch requires laboratories and equipment costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Only a few countries have them. The United States and Russia, for sure. Iran? Iraq? A cave somewhere in Talibania? Perhaps. This stuff is far from readily available. As Conrad Chester, a former Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientist and expert on biological weapons, titled his talk at a Doctors for Disaster Preparedness meeting: “Terrorists Have Problems, Too.”

Now the Good News

With nearly all germs, as with other agents, the dosage determines the poison. Almost anything is poisonous in large enough quantities. Many people—wool sorters for example—are routinely exposed to small numbers of anthrax germs and don’t get sick.

You can’t catch anthrax from someone with an anthrax lung infection. Other anthrax infections, such as in the skin, are easily cured. As with all infections, you should avoid contact with an infected person. You shouldn’t self-medicate.

In case of a major biological or chemical attack, you cut your risk in half if you simply stay inside your house. You can cut the risk by another factor of 10 by making a “safe room.” Select a room with essentials (bath, water, food, TV, radio, telephone, games for the kids). Duct tape the windows and have towels available to moisten and jam around the doors.

“Don’t wait for the government to protect you,” urges Dr. Jane Orient, president of Doctors for Disaster Preparedness (DDP). “Your family’s safety is your responsibility.” DDP has additional information about many of these topics on its Web site (, including detailed sealed-room information and the federal government’s publication, Treatment of Biological Warfare Agent Casualties.

If a situation does arise where you suspect exposure, call your physician or the nearest emergency personnel. Do not take two aspirins or wait until morning . . . but do take a deep breath, far away from the powder.

Perhaps we all need one. And while we’re breathing, we might consider anew just how precious and fragile civilization is, and how great is the evil of those who seek to destroy it.

Dr. Michael A. Glueck has written extensively on medical and legal reform issues. Dr. Robert J. Chiak is president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS).