Anthrax Overreaction Infects Apprehensive Public With Unneccessary Paranoia

19 October 2001

By Stentor Danielson

The terrorist attack on the United States has shifted gears, from huge airplanes to tiny spores of the biological weapon anthrax (Bacillus anthracis).

At this point we donít even know for sure if all, some or any of the attacks were launched by the same people who are behind the September 11 tragedy, though the government is investigating that possibility. The possibility of copycat crimes, of people using the fear surrounding the anthrax mailings to magnify their own actions, is very real. For example, Planned Parenthood has reported that 90 of its offices have received mailings from Army of God, a militant anti-abortion group, that contained a powdery substance that later proved to be benign. We would expect an organization that could mastermind four simultaneous plane hijackings would have the resources to acquire, and be certain to use, only high-grade weapons-level anthrax. Yet only one letter, that sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), contained this grade of the spore. The letter received by a Microsoft office in Nevada contained pornographic photos, which would seem to be at odds with the fundamentalist Islamic requirement that women cover themselves from head to toe.

In one sense the anthrax campaign -- if in fact it is a concerted campaign -- has been more cost-effective than the September 11 attacks. On September 11, the perpetrators lost 19 of their agents and brought the wrath of the American public, as well as much of the rest of the world, down on Osama bin Laden, his al Qaida organization and the Taliban that sheltered them within hours of the attacks (though the U.S. government took a bit longer to launch retaliatory action). While the planes that hit the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and southwestern Pennsylvania killed thousands of people and terrified the nation, they also led Americans to see a concrete solution before them, which brought about a rallying behind the Bush administration.

The anthrax scare has not caused nearly the damage that the September 11 attacks did. But the reaction of the public has been more disproportionately large. As of this writing, only one person has died of anthrax. A mere 12 more have tested positive for exposure to some form of the spore. This is the net effect of seven mailings of the spore over 30 days. Yet people across the country are shaken by the possibility of receiving a mailing of anthrax. A Washington Post-ABC News survey showed over half of those polled thought they or someone close to them are at risk of contracting anthrax. And with no perpetrator identified, and the possibility that some of the incidents were orchestrated by small, hidden groups, Americans feel helpless to solve the problem.

It is true that anthrax can be deadly. It needs to be treated immediately, while the symptoms are still only on the level of the flu. But there are several aspects of anthrax that make it a less-than-ideal biological weapon. First, it is not contagious. Direct exposure to the spores is the only way to contract it. So one envelope of anthrax can at best take out all the people in the office it was sent to. You canít start an anthrax epidemic (unless you invest in a whole lot of stamps). Second, there are three types of anthrax -- contact, ingested, and inhalation. The first two types, which represent the majority of the anthrax distributed so far, are significantly more benign. The letter mailed to Daschle stands out because it contained the most lethal form. And even in that case, no one has yet died.

What anthrax does have is name recognition. Even before this spate of incidents, most people had heard of anthrax, and knew it was a potentially lethal disease. So people were quicker to make assumptions about what was going on. They didnít wait to hear what exactly this "anthrax" thing was or how deadly it could be.

Perhaps part of the explanation for the overreaction lies in the selection of media outlets for targets. The scare began at the Florida offices of American Media, a tabloid publisher. Later, anthrax showed up in NBC anchor Tom Brokawís mail. Along with the letter sent to Daschle (who is constantly in the national mediaís eye), these incidents have received the most coverage, in what a cynic would see as media narcissism. While soldiers and civilians continue to die in Afghanistan, the infection of the 7-year-old son of an ABC producer grabbed headlines. On Tuesday, the New York Post ran a doctored front-page photo of the Lincoln Memorial in a gas mask.

But the problems of overreacting lie as much with the public for buying into the scare as with the media for fueling it. Demand for, and prescriptions of, the antibiotic Cipro have shot up, as paranoid and hypochondriac Americans become convinced that they are next. This raises fears that the effectiveness of Cipro may be reduced. Taking unnecessary antibiotics encourages the development of drug-resistant strains of various diseases. Penicillin, for example, is now much less effective against pneumonia because it was overprescribed for the common cold.

If those sending anthrax out are intending to cause massive deaths, they have chosen the wrong method. But it is far more likely that terror, not death, is the goal. If that is the case, they are succeeding. The best defense against the anthrax tactic is to refuse to let it cause us to fear.

By all means, be cautious and thorough in taking care of any actual suspicious letters. Then recognize that the danger of being hit by a car is many orders of magnitude higher than the danger of contracting anthrax. Recognize that the targets of anthrax threats are high-profile individuals whose deaths would create a huge media buzz. Recognize that most anthrax is treatable, but that treatment without a disease is worse than useless. Donít let these few incidents cause us to validate bin Ladenís gleeful but incorrect assertion that America is trembling in fear of terrorism.

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