Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

Front Page



UK Politics







Talking Point
On Air
Low Graphics

Tuesday, March 24, 1998 Published at 04:41 GMT


Anthrax: a deadly bacterium

The US Defence Secretary, William Cohen, provides an analogy
An attack using anthrax could be every bit as deadly as a one-megaton atomic bomb, according to an official US report.

It is a deadly disease that can be spread by people breathing it in, it kills 90% of those infected and it exists in tiny quantities in cattle grazing areas. Potential terrorists can produce anthrax without access to exotic chemicals.

Books explaining how to manufacture a variety of poison gasses and other toxins can be bought in the US or ordered across the Internet.

According to the report to the US Congress' former Office of Technology Assessment, an aircraft releasing 100kg of anthrax over a large city on a calm, clear night could kill between one and three million people.

Fortunately, according to Dr Jonathan Tucker, an expert in chemical and biological weapons who served on a UN weapons team in Iraq, using such weapons in a terrorist attack is not easy.

"Trying to produce 100,000 casualties is much more difficult than is often stated", he said.

In March 1995, members of the Aum Supreme Truth cult in Japan made several poison gas attacks on the Japanese subway system - the first large-scale terrorist use of chemical or biological weapons.

While 12 people were killed and thousands sent to hospital, equipment failures and human error kept casualties from being much higher.

Dr Tucker adds it can be difficult to design ways to deliver these toxins, and weather conditions and impurities in the toxins themselves can frustrate a terrorist attack.

Anthrax - its effects

Anthrax is a bacterium, spread by spores which can be breathed in, or by skin contact. These spores are present in cattle and sheep grazing areas but at such low levels that farm workers are normally safe from infection.

It is not spread from person to person, though medical professionals recommend that the clothing and other soiled articles of the infected should be burned.

Those most at risk can be vaccinated - some textile workers are, for example, and in December 1997 it was announced that all US troops were to be vaccinated in a rolling programme.

Those infected can also be cured with an antibiotic if it is administered within 12 hours of infection - penicillin will work, though penicillin-resistant strains of Anthrax exist.

If it is inhaled, symptoms include mild fever, malaise, fatigue, coughing and, occasionally a feeling of pressure on the chest. If it has been contracted through the skin, there will be a boil, which eventually forms a black centre.

Unfortunately, these symptoms can be missed or mis-diagnosed, and sometimes they do not start until after the 12 hour period when treatment is effective.

If the disease is untreated or treatment is ineffective, death follows within days in more than 80% of cases.

Advanced options | Search tips

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage | ©

Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia

Relevant Stories

24 Mar 98 | UK
UK alert over Iraqi anthrax threat

Internet Links

Putting teeth in the Biological Weapons Ban - article in MIT

Center for Nonproliferation Studies - Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Project

Chemical & Biological weapons and attempts to outlaw them

Chemical and Biological Agents - information, further reading and links

Anthrax symptoms and treatment - Arnot Ogden Medical Centre

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

In this section

From Business
Microsoft trial mediator appointed

Violence greets Clinton visit

From Entertainment
Taxman scoops a million

Safety chief deplores crash speculation

Bush calls for 'American internationalism'

Hurricane Lenny abates

EU fraud: a billion dollar bill

Russian forces pound Grozny

Senate passes US budget

Boy held after US school shooting

Cardinal may face loan-shark charges

Sudan power struggle denied

Sharif: I'm innocent

From Business
Vodafone takeover battle heats up

India's malnutrition 'crisis'

Next steps for peace

Homeless suffer as quake toll rises

Dam builders charged in bribery scandal

Burundi camps 'too dire' to help

DiCaprio film trial begins

Memorial for bonfire dead

Spy allegations bug South Africa

Senate leader's dismissal 'a good omen'

Tamil rebels consolidate gains

New constitution for Venezuela

Hurricane pounds Caribbean

Millennium sect heads for the hills

South African gays take centre stage

Lockerbie trial judges named