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W.E. Gutman: Arsenal of death: Turning nature into doomsday weaponry

Posted: April 23, 2010 6:19 p.m.
Updated: April 25, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Arsenal of death: turning nature into doomsday weaponry

At first, Kinfumu thought it was the flu. A day later, doubled over with severe abdominal cramps, burning with fever but suspecting little more than a bad case of dysentery, Kinfumu, a 36-year-old lab technician, checked into the hospital in Kikwit, Zaire. Doctors knew this was no ordinary case of dysentery but a gruesome miscreation feasting on their patient from the inside.

Within hours, Kinfumu's capillaries became clogged with lifeless blood cells, causing the skin to swell, blister and dissolve. Blood bubbled and seeped out from his eyes, ears and nostrils, then from every orifice in his body in rank, foamy rivulets.

An overpowering spasm seized and shook the comatose Kinfumu, causing him to vomit a black slime - his liquefied internal organs. He died within hours.

No, this is not Stephen King or Clive Barker at their horrific best. This is ebola, a nightmare virus discovered three decades ago, when an outbreak killed 400 people in Zaire and Sudan. So far, no one knows where the vampire virus dwells and why it attacks with such randomness. What is known is that it spreads rapidly and kills 90 percent of its victims after reducing them to pulp.

If ebola is a hideous example of a microbial world gone amok, it is but one in a vast and growing army of organisms capable of killing millions in their wake. Some have plied the Earth for millennia and reemerge wherever poverty, poor sanitation and overcrowding persist - bubonic plague, cholera, smallpox and typhus. Once confined to narrow regions of the globe, some now jet toward random destinations, stowaways on an unwitting mission of death.

Others have mutated and gained strength with each outbreak. Many - secretive, misunderstood - lurk in their tropical hideouts, awaiting a fitting host. Most are yet unknown and, like AIDS, which could kill 150 million people by 2025, most can be weaponized. They include the folliwng.

In 2002, an anthrax-laced letter shut down Congress briefly and closed the Hart Senate Office Building for months. Five people were killed and 17 became sick nationwide, after coming into contact with mail containing anthrax. Targets of this novel and unsettling attack included then-Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, D-SD, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT.

No arrests were ever made. The affair, which has since sprouted new tentacles and led to other disclosures, is still "under investigation," which could mean "gathering dust."

As usual, time will dull memory and blunt interest, and, unless the media are vigilant and outspoken, the case will be swept under the heavy carpet of duplicity and indifference. Anthrax, which wreaks havoc on the immune system, remains a premier bioterror choice.

Lethal strains (hemorrhagic fever) of this mosquito-borne tropical virus now plague parts of Asia and Latin America. More than 150,000 infections were recorded in Latin America in 2005. It thrives in the Caribbean basin.

A new form of this rodent-borne flulike virus struck the southwestern U.S. in 1993, killing 12. More than 100 cases - 50 of them fatal - have since been reported in 23 states.

Transmitted in the same manner as HIV, it causes fatal T-cell leukemia in about 1 percent of its victims. The virus is pandemic.

Isolated on the banks of the Junín River in Argentina, the virus is spread by field mice and kills 20 percent of its victims. The incidence of Junín is rising.

When the deadly virus was first identified in Nigeria, it swept through a missionary hospital with terrifying speed, killing nurses, doctors and patients in open wards. Causing hemorrhagic fever, lassa infects nearly half a million people and kills about 5,000 annually.

A cousin of ebola, this virus was identified in 1967 when 31 people were infected in Germany and Yugoslavia - seven fatally - by Ugandan green monkeys.

The rodent-borne virus made a recent comeback in Bolivia. Six of seven affected victims died.

Transmitted by sand flies, this virus causes severe flulike symptoms. About 20,000 people were infected in Brazil.

Rift Valley fever
Spread by mosquitoes, the virus caused an epidemic in Egypt's Nile River delta, striking more than 10,000 people, killing several hundred.

While new diseases are straining the world's health resources, old ones - some presumed vanquished - are returning, fortified by multiple mutations and a pugnacious fancy for the best anti-viral agents and antibiotics money can buy. They include cholera, diphtheria, malaria, polio, a smorgasbord of sexually transmitted diseases and tuberculosis.

All are being studied as potential weapons.

W. E. Gutman is a veteran journalist and author, and the co-founder in 1986 of the now-defunct intelligence magazine, NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) Defense and Technology. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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