November 9, 2001

Prof. Weighs Realities of Anthrax Scare

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An image of go-go girls in gas masks from the 1950’s displayed at the lecture entitled “Do We Need Gas Masks? Assessing Risk and the Threat of Bioterrorism” reminded the audience that chemical warfare is not an unknown threat in the history of the United States.

Kathleen Vogel, peace studies, presented the lecture which recapitulated the facts of the current anthrax situation and discussed the risk management of exposure to anthrax in light of the recent hoaxes and false alarms.

The two recent scares of contamination at Warren Hall and Uris Library (both of which turned out to be false alarms) were used as examples of how institutions such as Cornell and the government respond to threats of bioterrorism.

“Given the recent anthrax events and the suspicious events on campus, there have been a lot of concern of how and what we can do to protect ourselves,” Vogel said. “[Online auction company] E-bay is selling gas masks and there has been much talk about sealing doors of homes, ironing mail, stockpiling Cipro [antibiotic] even if one is not exposed, just for security.”

Vogel emphasized that people’s perception of the risk of bioterrorism increases in low probability but high consequence situations such as the current anthrax threat.

Of the 22 confirmed cases of anthrax exposure in the U.S., 12 have been attributed to cutaneous exposure resulting in no death, while four people have died from the ten inhalation cases, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

Vogel noted that the government already gave antibiotics to 32,000 people, most of whom work in for the Postal Service, while it has not been determined how many hundreds of people have chosen to administer antibiotics to themselves.

The level of trust the general public has in the government agencies that provide information and updates pertaining to the threat of bioterrorism affects their perception of risk, Vogel emphasized.

“Many of the postal workers were not given antibiotics immediately. But when the letter was found in Senator Daschle’s office, the Senate and House were closed right away. The feeling of unfairness that resulted affected people’s perception of fear,” Vogel said.

The public’s perception of risk depends on a many factors including familiarity with the threat, exposure to negative or positive media sources as well as whether the threat is a long, drawn out process as opposed to a single, sudden event, Vogel explained.

“Small-scale events are the most common type of bioterrorism. Since most malicious uses of biological agents require at least some technical capability. Large-scale, catastrophic events requires large amount of technical knowledge, a well-established infrastructure and containment methods,” Vogel said.

While the U.S. government has been able to identify the strain of anthrax that caused cutaneous contamination as a strain that originated in the veterinary laboratories of Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, it is not known how the strain of fine, powdery anthrax sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s (D-S.D.) office was produced. Iraq, Russia and the U.S. are the only countries known to have the scientific resources to manufacture and turn into a weapon the type of anthrax that could be airborne and potentially very dangerous, Vogel added.

Much of what the government knows about the nature of anthrax is derived from its own production and research of biological weapons up until 1972 when former President Richard Nixon ended the program, according to Prof. Judith Reppy, science and technology studies.

“Forensic evidence is evaluated according to its relative strength as compared to the stockpiles of the United States government and other governments,” said John Cloud, peace studies.

The information gleaned from such governmental projects is useful when samples of suspicious packages must be tested to determine whether or not they are dangerous. As in the campus events last week, in which a package discovered at Warren Hall, the unknown material was sent to the State Department of Health in order to prove that it was a false alarm.

“When we talk about the range of possibilities of bioterrorism events we must take into account hoaxes, incidents in which people put talcum or sugar and envelope and make false threats. These cases don’t involve deaths or casualties. For the 8,000 reported hoaxes that have occurred throughout the nation since Sept. 11 there has been a significant cost factor, as much as $100,000 in some cases, and laboratories being overburdened,” Vogel said.

Members of the audience responded to Vogel’s lecture by making comparisons of the national events to scares on campus.

Richard Gaulton, director of Cornell Abroad, explained that it is often difficult for the acting authority, be it the government or the Cornell administration, to speak out confidently at times of crisis because they must wait for accurate results and prevent the spread of panic.

“There’s always going to be an inconsistency between what politicians are saying to prevent panic and what experts are doing to prevent subsequent attacks. It’s almost impossible to say that thing under these situations without catastrophic consequences even if you are technically correct,” Gaulton said.

“What’s reported in the media is bad news as opposed to good news will influence people’s perception of risk,” Vogel said. “From what we see so far, [bioterrorism] is a small-scale event. But we still don’t know who is [making these threats], their motivation and goals, and we don’t know much they’re learning from the media and public reaction,” Vogel added.

Archived article by Dan Webb