Other Views

Saturday, February 27, 1999

Hawaii isn’t immune
to biological terrorism

Hawaii agencies performed well
this week in first test to meet biological threat

By John Casken


When a bomb goes off we know there was an attack. When people collapsed in a Japanese subway in 1995 we understood that there had been a chemical assault. But when someone has a runny nose and fever -- maybe it's just the flu. Or maybe it's a deadly biohazard mascarading as a head cold, you never know. That's the theme of Richard Preston's "The Cobra Event," a bestseller about biological terrorism.

In Hawaii, our daily lives have been blissfully unaffected by such threats. We have felt safe. After all, we reasoned, Hawaii was different. But after this week, we know that we are just as exposed as any other place. The headlines on Wednesday, "FBI probes sinister anthrax hoax," said it all. Our innocence has been destroyed.

This commentary will look at biological terrorism from three perspectives: a brief history, an assessment of the risk with special emphasis on Hawaii, and most important, a look at some of the ways in which various groups are preparing to deal with biological terrorism.

A history

Biological weapons are not a 20th-century invention. In the Middle Ages there are reports of dead cattle being hurled over the ramparts of castles in siege warfare. In this country we are told that blankets used by smallpox victims were given to native tribes.

Biological weapons gained prominence in 1969 when President Nixon announced that the United States would renounce the use of biological weapons and would destroy existing stocks of biological weapons. In 1972 the U.S. signed the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (biological) and Toxin Weapons, and on their Destruction. We now know that biological weapons continued to be developed. If nothing else, nations felt the need to develop defenses against biological weapons that might be used against them. However, during the Cold War this quiet research on chemical and biological weapons was overshadowed by the need to defend ourselves from a Russian nuclear attack.

It is clear that biological weapons were used in the war between Iraq and Iran. Whether Iraq used biological weapons during the Gulf War is still being debated. However the United States was prepared for the possible use of these weapons. And there are still probably chemical stockpiles in Iraq.

A key part of the problem with biological weapons is that unlike nuclear weapons they are relatively easy and very cheap to create. The Department of Defense calls these weapons "the poor man's atomic bomb." Unlike nuclear weapons, biological weapons do not need a massive industrial infrastructure. Indeed they can be created by one person. This helps explain the risk. Because biological weapons are so easy and cheap to create, they are in many ways the ideal weapon for terrorists. Experts within the military and other branches of government all agree that biological terrorism is in use.

One clear effort was made by the Japanese group, the Aum Shinrikyo, that successfully used the chemical sarin in a terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. Subsequent investigations of their facilities suggested that they had been conducting research on using botulism and anthrax as weapons.

Threat to Hawaii

Is Hawaii vulnerable? We have the climatic conditions that could make for a successful strike. We have a culture that is friendly to strangers and are used to entertaining more than a million of them every year.

Local experts in the military and civil defense have weighed the possibilities and determined that we are indeed vulnerable. Whether we would be attacked is still open to discussion.

On the one hand it is questioned whether a terrorist would waste his or her efforts on a fairly small population. On the other hand, it is argued that a successful strike here would gain major international attention.

What is being done?

There are two main approaches being used to protect Hawaii and its citizens. The first is the more practical and the more immediate. The traditional federal, state and county agencies have been planning for possible biological terroristic events for a number of years.

The agencies include the FBI, the military, the Emergency Medical Services, the fire departments, the police departments, the National Guard, the state Department of Civil Defense, the state Health Department, local hospitals and private agencies such as the Red Cross.

These agencies have been practicing strategies to limit the short-term and long-term fallout from such an event by being able to work with the immediate victims and prevent the spread of the agent throughout the population.

As we saw this week, this preparation has paid off. The agencies can smoothly deal with a potential disaster. These agencies have recognized however, that the best defense against biological terrorism is trying to gain a better understanding of the conditions under which it is most likely to be used and so prevent it at the start.

Some of the agencies most concerned with biological terrorism have teamed up with the School of Public Health to teach a graduate course on nuclear, chemical and biological terrorism to develop long-term strategies that will help protect Hawaii and the nation. The school is one of four schools of public health nationwide that is working with the Centers for Disease Control to help reduce the problems from biological terrorism.

An educated citizenry is as equally important in reducing the threat and the consequences of biological terrorism as is using the appropriate protective clothing. The School of Public Health and its partner agencies recognize that this can't be done overnight but are prepared to do what is necessary to make sure it is done and done well so that Hawaii is spared what could be a catastrophic disaster.

John Casken, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University
of Hawaii-Manoa, created the School of Public Health's new graduate
course on dealing with biological terrorism and disasters.

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