- WASHINGTON - Although anthrax
and other biological weapons seem like 21st-century threats, they have
been tools of terror for ages.
- Ancient armies, for instance, tainted water supplies
of entire cities with herbs and fungus that gave people horrible diarrhea
and hallucinations. One germ-warfare assault in the 1300s apparently got
out of hand, triggering an epidemic that ravaged the population of
- British troops in the French and Indian War launched
a stealth smallpox attack on Indians. During World War I, German agents
ran an anthrax factory in Washington, D.C. World War II anthrax bombs left
a whole island uninhabitable for almost 50 years.
- "The earliest reference to anthrax is found in the
Fifth Plague," said Dr. Philip Brachman, an anthrax expert at Emory
University in Atlanta.
- It took 10 calamities inflicted on the Egyptians to
convince an obstinate pharaoh to liberate the ancient Hebrews, according
to the Bible. The plagues probably date to about 1300 B.C. They ranged
from Nile River water turned blood-red and undrinkable to the one-night
destruction of all the first-born of Egypt.
- The Fifth Plague (Exodus 9:3) was an infectious disease
that killed all the cattle in Egypt, while sparing the Hebrews' cattle.
Brachman and other experts think the biblical account actually refers to
a natural epidemic of anthrax. Such epidemics periodically decimated
animals in the ancient Middle East. The anthrax might have spared the
because their sheep would have been grazing on poorer pastures where
don't take hold as well.
- Domestic animals (and wild animals such as deer and
get anthrax by eating spores of the bacteria while grazing on contaminated
land, or from eating contaminated feed.
- Animal anthrax still is an important problem in
countries, especially in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Humans can catch
the disease from contact with infected animals, their meat, hide or
- Medical historians see anthrax's fingerprints in
from the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Hindus in India, which contain
of animal and human anthrax.
- They think history's most serious anthrax outbreak was
"Black Bane," a terrible epidemic that swept Europe in the 1600s.
It killed at least 60,000 people and many more domestic and wild
- People called it "Black Bane" because many
cases involved the cutaneous, or skin, form of anthrax, which involves
a blackish sore. Anthrax actually was named from a Greek word that refers
to coal and charcoal.
- Cutaneous anthrax can be quickly cured today with Cipro,
penicillin, doxycycline or other antibiotics. Like other infections in
the pre-antibiotic era, however, it often killed.
- Brachman said that epidemics of anthrax were common in
Europe during the 1700s and 1800s, with up to 100,000 cases of human
- Medicine's first major advance against anthrax occurred
in Germany as the United States celebrated its 100th birthday.
- A physician named Robert Koch discovered how to grow
bacteria on gelatin-like material in glass laboratory dishes, and rules
to prove that specific bacteria caused specific diseases. In 1876, Koch
identified the anthrax bacteria. It led to development of a vaccine that
was first used to immunize livestock in 1880, and later humans.
- Other biological agents have roots as almost as ancient
- Some of the first recorded biological terror attacks
occurred in the 6th century B.C.
- The ancient Assyrians (whose civilization began around
2400 B.C. in modern Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq) poisoned enemy wells
with ergot, a fungus that can grow on wheat, rye and other grains. It
LSD-like chemicals that cause hallucinations and other symptoms.
- In another 6th-century biological assault, the ancient
Greeks, besieging a city called Krissa, poisoned its water supply with
the herb hellebore. It causes violent diarrhea.
- During their sieges, ancient Roman soldiers threw
human corpses and carcasses of dead animals into their enemies' water
and catapulted them over the walls of enemy towns.
- A Tartar army in 1346 launched a biological assault that
may have gotten out of control - big time.
- While besieging a city in modern-day Crimea, soldiers
hurled corpses of bubonic plague victims over city walls. Fleas from the
corpses infested people and rats in the city. Plague spread as people and
rats escaped and fled.
- Some experts believe it triggered the great epidemic
of bubonic plague -the "Black Death" -that swept Europe, killing
25 million people.
- In 1797, Napoleon tried to infect residents of a besieged
city in Italy with malaria.
- During the French and Indian War, the British suspected
American Indians of siding with the French. In an "act of good
the British gave the Indians nice, warm blankets -straight from the beds
of smallpox victims.
- The resulting epidemic killed hundreds of Indians.
- Dr. Anton Dilger, an agent of the Imperial German
during World War I, grew anthrax and other bacteria in a corner of his
Washington home. His henchmen on the docks in Baltimore used the anthrax
to infect 3,000 horses and mules destined for the Allied forces in Europe.
Many of the animals died, and hundreds of soldiers on the Western Front
in Europe were infected.
- In 1937, Japan began a biological warfare program that
included anthrax, and later tested anthrax weapons in China. During World
War II, Japan spread fleas infected with bubonic plague in a dozen Chinese
- The United States, Great Britain and other countries
developed anthrax weapons during World War II. The British military in
1942 began testing "anthrax bombs" on Gruinard Island, a 500-acre
dot of land off the northwestern coast of Scotland. After the war, the
project was abandoned.
- However, the Gruinard experiments established the
environmental consequences of using anthrax as a weapon of mass
- British scientists thought the anthrax spores would
die or blow away into the ocean. But the spores lived on. Huge numbers
remained infectious year after year. Finally, in 1986, after critics
Gruinard "Anthrax Island," the British government decided to
clean up the mess.
- Workers built an irrigation system over the entire test
range. It saturated the ground with 280 tons of formaldehyde
fluid" -diluted in 2,000 tons of seawater. The fluid flowed 24 hours
a day for more than a year. Gruinard finally was declared decontaminated
in 1990. It remains uninhabited today.
- Modern biological warfare programs have resulted in
contamination as well. An accident in 1979 at a Soviet biological warfare
plant in Sverdlovsk (Ekaterinburg), released anthrax that killed at least
68 people who lived downwind.
- A 1972 treaty, ratified by 143 countries, banned
deployment, possession and use of biological weapons. Analysts think that
a dozen countries still may have clandestine biological weapons programs,
- Iraq is believed to have hidden stockpiles of
anthrax and other biological agents, plus artillery shells and other
to deliver the germs.
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