Inside Base Camp
From its first days, the war in Iraq intensified public fear about biological weapons and the havoc they might wreak on populations worldwide; whether in the hands of a rogue government or a lone terrorist. Add to that the rapid spread of SARS (severe acute respiration syndrome) and it is easy to see why the unseen enemy, represented by viruses, microbes and microscopic poisons, can be more terrifying than the largest army.
When Pulitzer-winning journalist Laurie Garrett walked into my studio, it took her only minutes to make it clear: The fear is justified. As the author of both The Coming Plague and Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health, she sees great dangers lurking; in the desire of some groups to turn disease into a weapon, and the failure of others to prepare themselves for that threat.
Tom Foreman: Do you believe that right now there are people in this world trying to weaponize smallpox and other viruses, and succeeding?
Laurie Garrett: I was in the Vector laboratory in Siberia, where they had created forms of smallpox that could be mounted on intercontinental ballistic missiles for launch delivered in little parachutes that would drift down over cities dropping sufficient doses to cause widespread pandemics all over the world. We know that the Russian ministry of defense continues to have laboratories in operation today and has refused any international inspection of those facilities. Furthermore we know that many of the roughly 50,000 to 60,000 technicians who were involved in the program have lost their jobs and many of them are presumed to have gone to countries that are willing to pay them for their knowledge, their expertise, and their samples.
Tom Foreman: So you buy this notion that within the next ten years we will see this kind of attack?
Laurie Garrett: I don't know that we will, but I know that we would be insane to assume that we won't.
Tom Foreman: Do you think we are prepared?
Laurie Garrett: No. Not remotely. And I think anybody you speak to who is on the ground in public health in this country will tell you we are a far cry from being ready for such a thing. Since World War II we have really diminished our commitment to our public health infrastructure. We've allowed this complacency to develop because we felt like we conquered most of the infectious diseases. So we've really allowed public health to diminish in stature, in pay scale, and in importance and in political clout to such a degree that when the anthrax episode occurred in the fall of 2001 and the Bush administration said, "I want this nation prepared if something like this happens," they looked around and said, "Whoa, wait a minute, what happened to our public health system?"
Tom Foreman: What would happen if somebody managed to release smallpox in the middle of a reasonable-size American city?
Laurie Garrett: If you're talking about a release that was some kind of an aerosolized release so that quite a large number of people got exposed at once, let's say in a subway system or in a traffic jam at rush hour something of that nature? Well, first of all, these people would all be mobile and almost no one would take ill very quickly
Tom Foreman: They're meeting hundreds thousands of people.
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