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Jeanne Guillemin: Anthrax risk and prevention



Jeanne Guillemin is a medical anthropologist, and a Professor of Sociology and Senior Fellow at MIT's Security Studies Program. In 1992, she was part of a team that investigated a suspicious anthrax epidemic that took place in 1979 in the former USSR. She is an affiliate of the Harvard-Sussex Program, which is involved with the elimination of chemical and biological weapons.

CNN: Welcome to CNN.com Newsroom Jeanne Guillemin. We are pleased to have you with us today. What can you tell us about past anthrax scares that were thought to be not due to natural exposure?

GUILLEMIN: Well, the major outbreak of inhalation anthrax happened in the Soviet Union in 1979. That was due to an aerosol emission from a military biological facility. It was the worst known outbreak in history. But what we're looking at today is more on the order of bio-crimes that fit a Unabomber model, much more than they fit a model of an epidemic.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: In the past tests were conclusive about live anthrax, how do we know that the negative tested powder isn't lying dormant? And if it is, how many people will become infected?

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Anthrax by the numbers
13 total anthrax infections

  • 3 deaths from inhalation infections

  • 8 cases inhalation infections

  • 5 cases cutaneous anthrax

32 total anthrax exposures

Source: CDC/CNN

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GUILLEMIN: We expect a lot of certitude from medical tests, which sometimes they can't give us. In Florida, though, and in New York, and also out in Nevada, they've been doing multiple tests on people who might have been exposed to anthrax, and I think the reliability of those tests is very high, and also, that very few people were exposed to the anthrax that was sent. We're seeing a lot more hoaxes involving white powder than we are seeing anthrax itself.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Given that anthrax can be spread in many ways, how can an individual possibly take precautions and still carry on as normal?

GUILLEMIN: Anthrax cannot be spread in many ways. The anthrax spore is dormant, so that merely touching it, for example, does not give you anthrax. If you have a cut on your finger, and you touch anthrax spores, you might come down with the skin form of anthrax, but you might not. The same is true of the other two kinds of anthrax, the anthrax you might get from eating infected meat, or the anthrax you can get if you deeply inhale anthrax spores. It is not contagious person to person. There's also a lot we don't know about individual human susceptibility to anthrax. We don't know why, for example, in the former Soviet Union in 1979, some 5,000 people were exposed to an anthrax aerosol, and only around 70 people died.

CNN: The antibiotic Cipro is the treatment for anthrax. Is it a good idea to have a prescription on hand?

GUILLEMIN: The problem with antibiotics is that there can be many different kinds of biological weapons threats. There are different kinds of anthrax, and it's not really perfectly clear that the risk of taking Cipro or some other antibiotic is not greater than the risk of being exposed to anthrax. With an antibiotic, you might be creating resistance that later on you would be sorry that you had that antibiotic.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Why is anthrax so "popular" these days? Aren't there many other more dangerous bio-warefare chemicals?

GUILLEMIN: Anthrax is a bacterium, not a chemical. It's not a contagious virus, either. There's a lot of attention being given to anthrax, because it was the biological weapon that was most highly-developed by the United States and by the former Soviet Union. That's really why we're so centered on it.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Would ultra-violet light destroy anthrax spores?

GUILLEMIN: Sunshine destroys anthrax spores, but very little else does. Heat doesn't, radiation doesn't. It's resistant to explosives. That's precisely the reason why anthrax was developed as a weapon, because it's tough, whereas most bacteria and viruses are fragile.

CNN: How difficult is it to trace the anthrax to its origins? Will authorities be able to compare anthrax samples for meaningful clues?

GUILLEMIN: There are libraries of anthrax strains or types at Los Alamos and at the Centers for Disease Control and in other nations around the world. The tracing of an anthrax strain requires precise laboratory work, but it can be done. It's important to remember that some strains of anthrax, even though they may have early on been identified with a particular place, have been used in labs around the world, in very small amounts, for research purposes, whereas other strains of anthrax occur naturally in environments where grazing herds have had epidemics of anthrax.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Isn't there a possibility of mutations that could be manipulated by those that construct it?

GUILLEMIN: Yes, it's possible to genetically manipulate anthrax, but anthrax is already a powerful part of nature's arsenal, and it isn't particularly necessary to invent new types of it.

CNN: How well are the government and media doing in keeping the balance between making the facts known and keeping panic under control?

GUILLEMIN: I think it's difficult in a society like ours, which demands quick, open access to any disaster event, to keep people perfectly calm about these bio-crimes. I think we have to notice that the letters sent to Florida and to New York were sent to media organizations, which virtually guaranteed a lot of publicity, and that the public has come to expect almost hourly updates on what happened in each of those environments.

The alarm that we have all felt is part of the price we pay for having a very active media and very good access to news. On the other hand, we have to understand that these cases are very limited. They do not indicate widespread epidemics, and will probably be revealed as the work of one or two individuals with perverse imaginations, and perhaps a lot of anger.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How well is the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) prepared if there were a large epidemic too break out?

GUILLEMIN: The CDC so far has had two roles. One is really to do a quick analysis of any biological information that would come from those who were exposed, for example, a quick diagnosis of Mr. Stephens in Florida. The other function of the CDC has been to stockpile and deliver antibiotics in the case of a more widespread outbreak. In the first instance, concerning the Florida diagnosis, some have complained that the CDC should have done it more quickly, that is, that it should have verified what the local physician saw under the microscope when he looked at bacteria from Mr. Stevens. That's a problem that can be addressed and solved. That is, it is possible to do diagnostic work more quickly, and I'm sure that it is going to be done more quickly in the future, simply because a lot more resources are being given to the CDC so that they can mobilize more quickly in terms of diagnosis.

About the antibiotics, again, the CDC has been criticized for not having enough antibiotics on stock, in case of a large outbreak. What we have to understand is that the risk of a large outbreak is very, very, very small. Again, this is a problem that can be remedied. It's simply a matter of getting more antibiotics in stock, and there are several companies internationally that are assisting in doing that. But we don't want our entire public health system to be geared to events of low risk and probability. It is more important right now, for example, that we have influenza shots, especially for elderly people, in adequate numbers to protect the population this coming winter.

CNN: Do you have any closing comments to share with us?

GUILLEMIN: I think we shouldn't panic, that as everyone is saying, we should go about our business with reasonable alertness and prudence, and not in a state of fear. I know a lot about anthrax, and I feel that we are not at great risk for a large epidemic of it. I also feel that the United States should take a more active role internationally in making sure that terrorists and certain nations who support terroristic activities do not have biological weapons. It is a matter now of protecting civilians, not just within our own borders, but around the world, against these awful weapons.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

GUILLEMIN: Thank you!

Jeanne Guillemin joined CNN.com via telephone from Boston. CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview, which took place on Monday, October 15.



 
 
 
 



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