December 3, 2001
Don't buy a gas mask. Don't stockpile ciprofloxacin. Don't panic. The best way to respond to the threat of bioterrorism is to strengthen community preparedness, according to John Clements, chair of microbiology and immunology and an expert on biological and chemical warfare.
The purchase of a gas mask or a stash of antibiotics won't do much to protect you from a biological or chemical attack, but it will contribute to an atmosphere of panic and help terrorists create fear. "They're trying to terrorize us and we're helping them," said Clements, of a nation in a panic over anthrax.
"These things are weapons of terror, not weapons of death. They're inefficient ways of killing people, but they're good at producing terror. And the antidote to terror is knowledge."
Clements' own knowledge of biological and chemical warfare dates back to his years in the Marine Corps. The focus of his current research is to develop ways to more effectively administer vaccines--for example, his lab has developed a way to use a Band-Aid to deliver a vaccination.
The U.S. Department of Defense funds most of his work and has the rights to the technology he develops. He's suddenly found himself in high demand by journalists and has been a voice of reason on CNN news programs and ABC's Nightline in recent weeks.
He believes that educators have a responsibility to be a source of good information in a time of confusion and hysteria. The threat of biological attack is nothing new, and the health-care system has been working to prepare itself for such an attack for years. The federal government has stockpiled antibiotics that can be airlifted to communities that need them.
"We're not worried about Eckerds running out of Cipro. The system is not asleep," Clements said. "There are still many ways that we could be better prepared, however and now is our chance to do that," according to Clements. "We need to focus on the community response, because the community response is going to save us," he said. "We need rapid-response teams, we need physicians in the community who recognize index cases, we need a health-care system that's able to respond quickly to a biological or chemical crisis. And we need an educated population."
Clements said he understands that people feel the need to do something to protect themselves. But overuse of antibiotics lessens their effectiveness. And a gas mask won't protect you because you won't know when to put it on. In fact, the most effective things you can do to protect yourself from anthrax are the same things that will protect you from hypertension and other unexotic illnesses. Exercise. Eat right. Stop smoking. Infectious disease strikes the weak first. They strike the immuno-compromised, they strike people who don't have good lung control.
And while you're being sensible, stop worrying about a mass attack of anthrax, which Clements believes is highly unlikely to happen. He noted that terrorists in Japan made several unsuccessful attempts to release anthrax in Tokyo in the 1990s.
"Nobody got sick," Clements said. "That's because there's more to distributing these agents than growing it up and sprinkling it on the lawn. You have to be able to weaponize it, and that's very difficult to do. Another thing not worth losing sleep over are engineered, antibiotic resistant superbugs. Nature does not give you unlimited latitude," Clements said. "Reality is constrained by some natural laws that people have not been able to overcome. Even if an antibiotic-resistant strain of anthrax appeared, it wouldn't be resistant to all the antibiotics in our arsenal."
Clements also noted that an anthrax vaccine exists. "The threat is real," Clements said. "We need to be aware and we need to do something productive. But if we work ourselves into a frenzy we're just doing the terrorists' job for them."
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