Bioterrorism

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Chapter: Pharmaceutical Microbiology : The Wider Contribution Of Microbiology To The Pharmaceutical Sciences

Bioterrorism, or biological terrorism, involves the deliberate release of biological agents such as viruses, bacteria and toxins, to intentionally cause terror, illness or death in a target population. In a climate of increasing political instability and radical fundamentalism there are many concerns over the likelihood of exposure to, and the ability to protect civilians from, such attacks.


BIOTERRORISM

 

Bioterrorism, or biological terrorism, involves the deliberate release of biological agents such as viruses, bacteria and toxins, to intentionally cause terror, illness or death in a target population. In a climate of increasing political instability and radical fundamentalism there are many concerns over the likelihood of exposure to, and the ability to protect civilians from, such attacks. There are a variety of biological agents that could potentially be used as biological weapons. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the UK Health Protection Agency (HPA) have defined bioterrorism agents into three categories (A, B and C) based largely on their lethality, ease of transmission and ability to cause panic. Category A agents, i.e. those that pose the greatest threat, are B. anthracis (anthrax), Cl. botulinum toxin (botulism), Yersinia pestis (plague), variola major (smallpox), Francisella tularensis (tularemia) and the filovirus (Ebola, Marburg) and arenavirus (Lassa, Machupo) strains that cause viral haemorrhagic fevers.

 

In the event of a biological attack governmental organizations would invoke a preparedness plan that would include environmental decontamination, e.g. hypochlorite solution, and pharmaceutical prophylaxis and/or treatment. Although it is practically, ethically, politically, socially and economically difficult to vaccinate against known bioterror pathogens, it may be possible to stockpile and thereafter disseminate pharmaceutical prophylactics and therapeutics. For example, in the UK the HPA would follow guidance from the Advisory Group for Medical Countermeasures and respond with short-term antibiotic cover with, for example, ciprofloxacin or doxycycline (anthrax, plague) or doxycycline/rifampicin or co-trimoxazole (brucella). Botulinum antitoxin would also be provided for treatment of botulism. Clearly, the effectiveness of this plan in preventing illness and death would depend on the ability to detect the threat and respond rapidly.

 

In the future, the problem may help to provide the solution as advances in genetic medicine, a science that exploits bacteria and viruses, produce vaccine platforms that can be efficiently stockpiled to protect susceptible populations against bioweapons.

 

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