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What Is Bioterrorism?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bioterrorism is a form of biological attack where viruses, bacteria or other germs are intentionally released to sicken or kill animals, people or crops [1].

Termed as an act of terrorism, the intentional release of biological agents (toxins in their original form or modified form) is commonly reported in the agribusiness where anti-agricultural attacks are carried out to damage the economy [2].


What Is Bioterrorism?

The deliberate release of biological agents to cause illness or death, the biological agents are ordinarily found in nature. However, these agents are then modified, altered or mutated to elevate their ability to cause diseases [3]. These agents are also modified to be resistant to medicines or have a heightened ability to spread into the atmosphere.

Biological agents used in bioterrorism can be spread through the air, water, or in food [4]. The use of biological agents makes it difficult to detect them and takes time to cause illness or death; it may even take days to detect [5].

As they are inexpensive to procure and can be released easily without much detection, these biological agents are favoured in terrorism, studies point out [6]. The use of these agents to disrupt the economy without affecting the humans have also been reported, such as the case of the foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) virus, which is capable of causing widespread economic damage and public concern; without affecting human beings [7].

Bioterrorism is mainly used as a means to create mass panic and disruption to a state or a country.


The History Of Bioterrorism

Historians and historical claims point at the use of bioterrorism or the use of biological agents for disruption began as early as 600 BC where the Assyrians poisoned the wells of their enemies with rye ergot (a group of fungi), which affected those ingesting it with sickness or death [8]. It was also reported with the Athenians, Scythians, Chinese, Romans, and Carthaginians [9].

In 590 BC, during the siege of Cirrha, Solon of Athens is said to have used hellebore roots (a purgative) to poison the water in the Pleistrus River. In 400 BC, Scythian warriors reportedly dipped their arrows into decomposing bodies or in blood mixed with faeces from people with diseases in the attempt to make wounds fester [10].

In 1155 in Italy during the battle of Tortona, the Roman Emperor used the bodies of dead enemy soldiers to contaminate the enemies' wells. During the Holy Roman Empire, at Bohemia, attackers catapulted the corpses of dead soldiers killed in battle into the walled city in 1422.

In the eighteenth century, combatants continued their crude use of biological agents such as in 1710, Russian attackers catapulted plague cadavers into the city at the city of Reval, Estonia. In 1797, Napoleon attempted to infect the inhabitants of Mantua, Italy with swamp fever.

In April 1775, the British found themselves facing both the Continental Army and a smallpox epidemic during the period of the American Revolution. Later, in 1776, a large part of soldiers was affected by an outbreak of smallpox.

By the 1800s, the uses of biohazardous materials as weapons of war fetched far less attention than the development, improvement, and use of heavy artillery [11].

And in 2001, several letters were received by members of the U.S. Congress and American media outlets which contained intentionally prepared anthrax spores which sickened at least 22 people of whom five died [12].


Types Of Agents Used In Bioterrorism

Category A: These are high-priority agents and can be easily transmitted and disseminated, result in high mortality. They may cause public panic, or require special action for public health preparedness [13].

Some of the examples of category A bioterrorism agents are Tularemia or rabbit fever, Anthrax, Smallpox, Botulinum toxin, Bubonic plague and Viral hemorrhagic fevers [14][15].

Category B: These bioterrorism agents are moderately easy to disseminate and have low mortality rates [16].

Some of the examples of category B are Brucellosis (Brucella species), Epsilon toxin of Clostridium perfringens, Food safety threats (for example, Salmonella species, E Coli, Shigella etc.), Glanders, Melioidosis, Psittacosis, Q fever, Ricin toxin from Ricinus communis (castor beans), Abrin toxin, Staphylococcal enterotoxin B, Typhus, Viral encephalitis and Water supply threats [17][18].

Category C: These bioterrorism agents are described as emerging pathogens that might be engineered for mass dissemination because of their availability and ease of production [19]. Easy to spread, these can cause a high mortality rate or ability to cause a major health impact.

Nipah virus, Hantavirus and Coronavirus are being considered as possible category C of bioterrorism agents [20][21][22]. More studies are being conducted.


On A Final Note…

Reports of hoaxes related to bioterrorism have been plenty, where the anthrax hoax had received media attention from around the globe. The hoax was that an envelope with powder in it that says, "You've just been exposed to anthrax" had resulted in producing a psychological impact on the population.

Read more about: bioterrorism anthrax toxins bacteria
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