Putting anthrax into it's proper perspective



**Ten Leading Causes of Death in the U.S.: (1998)

Heart Disease: 724,859
Cancer: 541,532
Stroke: 158,448
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: 112,584
Accidents: 97,835
Pneumonia/Influenza: 91,871
Diabetes: 64,751
Suicide: 30,575
Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 26,182
Chronic Liver Disease and Cirrhosis: 25,192**

I count 3 anthrax deaths so far in three weeks.

Not to discount the danger this disease DOES pose if it enters the body, BUT . . . Compared to cholestoral, landfills, salt, smokers, road rage drivers, sick people at malls, sugar, bad kidneys and alcohol, anthrax is kind of a rather minor problem, wouldn’t everyone agree?

Of those ten, how many were caused (as in, intentionally) by some person other than the victim?

Of course what you say makes sense–anthrax is not a significant cause of death in the United States. But, looked at from another perspective, there is reason to be cautious. According to the editorial notes in this press release from the CDC:

–The case mentioned in that release, in August, 2000, was the first recorded case of cutaneous anthrax in the United States since 1992;

–Even prior to 1992, cutaneous anthrax in humans was extremely rare;

–18 cases of inhalataion anthrax in humans have been reported in the 20th century, but none since 1976.

So obviously the recent anthrax cases and fatalities are far out of proportion to their incidence in at least the last 9 years. But they are the result of deliberate action by a person or person’s wishing to spread it, too.

The nefarious nature of contracting anthrax is not disputed. Still, compared to the numbers of American murdered by handguns, knives and bare hands (stats which I don’t have available) I’m sure is much higher than 3 a year, or even 52 a year if you want to assume one person a week dies from anthrax infection.

It’s not the body count that’s causing people to freak. It’s the intentional-yet-random nature of it. The vast majority of people in the US are going to die by one of those top ten things on their list. To know that somebody could specifically cause them to check out early, randomly, and for doing absolutely nothing to the person who caused the death is just creepy.

It should also be mentioned that what’s important is not necessarily raw numbers of people killed, but things like death rate per 1,000 population, fatality rate vs. incidence of exposure/occurrence, etc.

For example, if the 25,192 people who died of cirrhosis/liver disease were the only people who had been diagnosed with it, that would be much more important in the scheme of things than if 10 million people had been diagnosed and only 25,000 died.

Given that there have been no reported cases in 9 years (cutaneous) and 15 years (inhalation) prior to 2001, if there were 52 deaths from anthrax this year, I’d consider that downright alarming.

Before 9/11, there were probably 0 cases of US deaths from hijackers flying planes into towers. The death rate went up dramatically in one day.

People tend to worry about things out of proportion. My favorite examples (because I saw no fewer than three of them on my OB month) are the pregnant women who will loudly and forcefully demand to know how much these drugs we’re giving her are going to hurt her baby, then stop on the way out of the office for a smoke.

Similarly, people are worrying about getting an anthrax vaccine who won’t bother to go get a flu shot, despite the fact that the flu will kill 30,000 people this year.

I’m not saying it’s a bad thing–it’s just the way we’re wired. I know that I am statistically safer in a commercial airplane than in my car, but I still breathe a sigh of relief when I touch down at SDF that I don’t when I pull in from Kroger. But we should understand that the hysteria surrounding anthrax will likely prove to be more detremental than the anthrax itself.

Dr. J

Three murders in twenty one days would be less than one percent of the average number of murders committed in the US during that period during recent years, even with the changes in murder rates since the late nineties. Five thousand in a day is, of course an entirely different matter. However, five thousand in a year is still less than the number of Americans killed by Americans on the highway, every year. Murder is murder. The political opinions of murderers are of no interest to me.

I have not heard anything even approaching evidence that the agents of these two sets of acts are related.


“The people have always some champion whom they set over them and nurse into greatness…This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears he is a protector.” ~ Plato ~

If you compare it to just 724,859 from heart disease the rate is not so dramatic.

You want perspective? Consider this.

Both chemical and biological weapons of one sort or another have been part of warfare since it has been recorded. It has also been viewed with near universal revulsion. If I recall correctly, Thucydides records that the Athenians hunted a Thracian tribe to near-extinction largely because they used poisoned arrows, which was considered barbaric by the Greeks. This happened at almost the exact same time that the Athenians decimated the island of Melos simply to show to other peoples that they could. Biological “warfare” against non-eurasian peoples, both inadvertant and completely intentional, accounted for millions upon millions of deaths in Australia, North and South America, and the Pacific islands.

After the Pandora’s box of chemical warfare was re-opened in the First World War, most nations agreed to prohibit the use of chemical and biological weapons. Germany was expressly forbidden from researching chemical weapons in Article 171 of the Treaty of Versailles. They were considered so terrible that the Second World War, by far the bloodiest and most inhumane conflict in human history, was virtually free of the use of chemical and biological weapons.

Virtually free. In 1942, Reinhard Heydrich, SS “Protector” of Czechoslovakia and widely perceived potential heir to Adolf Hitler, survived an assassination attempt but died shortly thereafter from complications which are variously attributed to infected debris from his own uniform, or either botulism or anthrax supplied to Czech assassins by British agents. German retribution included the execution of the entire male population of the village of Lidice, Cz. Use of biotoxins was cited as one of the reasons for the punitive liquidation.

Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has promised everything from “response in kind” to “overwhelming” response to anyone who would dare to use NBC agents against it. And up to now, it worked.

Just look at the fear and panic a poorly constructed and distributed bioweapon has caused in the past few weeks. The fear and panic isn’t about this particular fumbling attempt, it’s because someone has dared to do it. The floodgates are open, the blueprints are spread out for other, more competent people to follow, and the entire world is in as much danger as they ever have been.

The only thing that has prevented this sort of thing from happening sooner* is the promise of total destruction of the first parties to use them. Why does history show that the traditional response to chemical and biological warfare is enormous, out-of-proportion, bloodthirsty response? Because we are and have always been scared shitless of this sort of thing. Our responses have been intended to dissuade generations of people from using these things. That’s how scared about 'em we are.

Well, now the world is a confusing enough place that individuals can get hold of and use these agents, and their parent nations appear to be able to escape the promised apocalyptic retribution for their use.

Chances are, if you have and are using a computer, you have enough regular contact with the rest of the world that you are susceptible to the indiscriminate use of a bioweapon.

And soon every jerk, creep, asshole, and psycho in the world will know where to look up the information needed to procure and spread such a weapon. We are either doomed to total destruction or doomed to emulating the vicious retributions of the past in a possibly futile attempt to contain the use of such weapons. And I’m not very damned happy about either prospect.

  • It would appear as if another biological attack against Americans took place in the early 1990s, but it was so poorly executed that it took years to discover the details. I’ll find a citation.

But haven’t we always had the potential to vaporize ourselves through the use of nuclear weapons? That’s been hanging over our heads and still is.

Yes, there has been some panic, but it’s not widespread panic and there hasn’t been civil unrest and major disruption of society.

And someone may indeed try this again, but the response by the public health system should improve because now people are paying attention.

Someone could indeed kill me with a biological agent. But they also could just shoot me. The end result is the same.

Not that it’s done with malice in mind, and obviously not as sinister: but perhaps we should also round up people that don’t cover their mouths when they cough, or wash their hands before touching the public restroom doorknob as well. Statistically these people are a bigger danger to the public health at large during flu season than anthrax! While were at it, drunk drivers and smokers should be rounded up and shot as well.

I’m of course being facetious, the point is, this is all waaaaaaaaaaaaay too blown out of proportion, and when you look at the anthrax issue with a new perspective, to me it’s not a big deal.

And not to trivialize the tragedy of the two postal workers dying of anthrax, but I would be curious as to how many postal workers a year get seriously ill from handling envelopes covered with flu germs each year. I mean, imagine how many flu carriers lick those stamps each year!

It seems like people are starting to pooh-pooh the whole anthrax thing for reasons stated elsewhere in this thread. While I agree that panic is not warranted, here are reasons why we should be deeply concerned:

[li]Unlike cancer or heart disease, anthrax is being spread purposefully by unknown individual(s).[/li][li]It is unknown how many individuals are responsible, who they are or what their motivations are.[/li][li]Some evidence (the timing of the attacks, the content of the letters, reports that Al Qaeda has been researching biological weapons) suggests that a sophisticated, organized global terrorist organization may be involved.[/li][li]Analysis of the spores indicates a high level of sophistication - some reports have even suggested that it would take a state-sponsored program to produce them. (Granted, there have been conflicting reports on this.)[/li][li]Once spores are obtained, they are fairly easy to propagate. It’s quite possible that whoever carried out these attacks has many more spores available.[/li][li]There are other means of spreading anthrax besides letters.[/li][li]Inhalation anthrax is extemely deadly. By the time you start exhibiting symptoms, it may already be too late.[/li][/ul]
It’s true that very few deaths have been caused by this round of attacks. But that’s not what’s frightening. What’s frightening is what we’ve learned about the potential for future attacks. This is a warning, and we’d be foolish not to heed it.

Words of wisdom from this past August:

Things have changed even in the few days since Vinnie was asking about microwaving her mail. The Feds screwed up big time and now people are dead because of it. A few less than 6000 perhaps, but that’s not the result of any effort on the part of Uncle Sam. It is not yet time to be sticking our collective heads back into the sand on the topic of biological warfare.

Recognizing the true extent of risk to the nation, and understanding the real probability of personal risk is not similar in any way to ignoring reality.

A disease, for which adequate protocols for treatment exist, is released in the one nation most likely to be able to limit its damage. The reality is that someone spent millions, and exposed their organization to multiple sources of legal, military, and covert retaliation and accomplished the deaths of a few uninvolved bystanders. From a strictly military point of view this attack is a miserable failure, because of stupidity on the part of the original instigators.

Retaliation against the perpetrators has not yet been ruled out, by the way. Our official strategic policies call for nuclear weapons to be used in response against biological weapons. The stark incompetence of the enemy might make that undesirable.


" The worst policy is to attack cities. Attack cities only when there is no alternative." ~ Sun-tzu ~

They’ve accomplished the deaths of a few uninvolved bystanders so far. What if this attack was only a test, or if it was Phase 1 of a larger effort? We should focus not on the supposed success or failure of this attack, but on the potential for harm that we’ve now discovered.

Even if you consider this attack a failure, it’s foolish to dismiss the enemy as incompetent on that basis alone. They’re competent enough to get their hands on anthrax spores; that alone makes them dangerous.

I recently read of a government study (which predated the current attack) that determined in a worst case scenario of an anthrax based attack (ie assuming that anthrax in its most virulant form was disseminated in a manner to maximize casualties) total fatalities were estimated at approximately 95,000. A horrendous number certainly, but less than one out of a thousand Americans.

No, that is not the reality, that is a supposition. There is as yet no evidence whatsoever that this was a sophisticated high cost operation. There have been rumors that the material was “weaponized” in a fancy milling machine, and statements that milling could be done on a small scale by a meticulous individual working out of their basement. It’s possible that a microscopic analysis of the spores, or a determination of the particle size distribution could settle the issue, but the evidence is not yet available. It is thus too soon to draw any conclusion as to the cost and difficulty of the operation. It is without a doubt reassuring to imagine that growing up anthrax spores, drying them and delivering them through the public mail is an incredibly difficult thing to do, but hearsay that supports a warm and fuzzy feeling should not be confused with fact.

That might be true if sole purpose of the attack was to kill people. Do you have any evidence that that’s the case, or is it possible that the perpetrators would count the disruption of congress and a few billion in economic damages as a victory ? Do you even have any evidence that this wasn’t just a test run with no particular “military” objective at all ? Perhaps the perpetrators merely wished to find out how hard it was going to be to avoid the cops, before trying again on a larger scale ? It’d be reassuring if the perpetrators were incompetent, and viewed the attack as a failure, there’s just no evidence yet that that’s the case. We’d be making a mistake to color in their abilities and motives without first seeking out a little more evidence to back up our opinions.

-On the subject of putting anthrax into it’s proper perspective:
I’ve been digging about looking for precedents of terrorists sending anthrax through the mail, and found an interesting review by the Canada Security Intelligence Service http://www.csis-scrs.gc.ca/eng/miscdocs/tabintr_e.html Apparently the Baader-Meinhof gang threatened to spread anthrax by mail in Germany during the late 70’s. The Red Army Faction, Red Brigades etc. were involved in testing anthrax delivery by mail during the 80’s. Obviously the Feds were aware of this at some level. It’s too bad that no one was able to pull out and use an analysis of the possible risks to the public from those earlier incidents.

This just in:

I started to suspect something along these lines soon as I heard that 30-odd people had been infected in Daschle’s office as a result of a single staffer tearing open an envelope.

BTW, isn’t Daschle currently third in line in the scheme of presidential succession?