THE SYMPTOMS: "eyes glittering, breathing labored and hoarse, dark bloody discharge from nostrils, tongue swollen, limbs covered with swollen sores exuding a foul pus. .

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Anthrax 101

THE SYMPTOMS: "eyes glittering, breathing labored and hoarse, dark bloody discharge from nostrils, tongue swollen, limbs covered with swollen sores exuding a foul pus. . . . " An unmistakable eyewitness account of anthrax infection, recorded around A.D. 30 by the Roman poet Virgil. Sadly, something similar could have been written in a Washington, D.C.-area hospital last week as the anthrax death toll rose to three.

Like most other infectious diseases, anthrax has been with us pretty much since the days our hunting and foraging ancestors traded in a wandering existence for permanent settlements, working the land and tending the flocks. But compared to influenza, smallpox, typhoid, measles, and dysentery, its impact on civilization has been small.

The above diseases are dangerous because we catch them from each other. The anthrax bacterium is probably more widespread than any of them, but it hasn't (yet) evolved the capacity of passing unnoticed from one individual to another via sneeze, kiss, or other contact. By the time anthrax carriers are infectious, they're also visibly, rather disgustingly sick. There is not a single reliable record in medical history of one individual catching anthrax from another.

Anthrax (the name comes from the Greek word for coal, referring to the black rotten spot that develops when the bacterium penetrates the skin) can infect most warm-blooded animals, but grazing animals (from antelope to zebras) are particularly vulnerable. When the bacteria aren't actively multiplying in living tissue, they sporulate by developing a tough, impermeable outer membrane and going dormant. Under dry, alkaline conditions, the spores can survive in the soil indefinitely.

It was this ability that drew attention from the military almost as soon as the bug was isolated and described by the 19th-century founders of bacteriology, Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur. It's easy to grow in the lab; once grown, it keeps indefinitely; correctly distributed, a little goes a long way; and if distributed precisely, it can kill its victims certainly and quickly.

But distribution has proved to be a bottleneck. The chunky individual bacteria are microscopic, but they tend to string together in chains and encapsulate in immobile clumps easily visible to the eye. Breaking the clumps back into individual particles isn't easy-and for military or terrorist use, only such micrometer-scale servings will do. Coarser anthrax powder can cause nasty skin infections, but it has to have a pre-existing wound to work on. Even when inhaled, only the tiniest particles can penetrate far enough into the mammalian lung to produce a quick, messy kill; bigger nuggets get swept harmlessly out of the trachea and nasal passages by the same mechanism that eliminates ambient dust from our airstream.

Milling natural clumps of anthrax into spore-size particles isn't something you can do in your kitchen with a coffee mill or food processor. That's why the authorities immediately suspected that the spores sent through the U.S. mail came from a bio-weapons lab, not someone's backyard. Even now, it's not clear whether those who have died were victims of "weapons-grade" anthrax or just unlucky.

For some with access to the right stuff, anthrax is an ideal terror weapon. Released into the air from a plane upwind of a densely populated city, it's estimated 100 pounds of the stuff would kill 100,000 people up to 10 miles away. (In real-life 1979, 66 citizens of Sverdlovsk in the Ural mountains died from an inadvertent windblown release from a Soviet biological research station.)

Released in a confined space with its own air-circulation system (think of the hundred miles of interconnected tunnels of the New York subway system), sporulated anthrax would be as efficient as a neutron bomb at eliminating life—and a whole lot cheaper.

Before we get too worked up about the sheer unmitigated vileness of people who would wreak such agony on their fellow creatures, we have to remind ourselves that much of the R&D that went into making anthrax such an efficient killer was done in labs right here at home.

So far there's little reason to believe that the high-tech mass killing form is what's in circulation here. But if someone manages to aerosolize anthrax in your vicinity, good luck, Charlie; and on the off chance that you receive an envelope with funny powder in it, do not—repeat, DO NOT—rub the powder on your upper lip and inhale deeply. Instead put the whole thing in a plastic bag, call your doctor, and treat yourself to a stiff drink. You will almost certainly be fine on a light diet of plain penicillin.

Despite a decade of warnings, our masters have done fuck-all about the threat of germ terrorism. Now that they're targets themselves, they're sure to act—but will they act in the public interest? When anthrax turned up in the Capitol, no one bothered to trace its path back upstream in time to save the lives of the postal workers who must have handled it.

rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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