Biological weapons include any microorganism (such as bacteria, viruses, or fungi) or toxin (poisonous compounds produced by microorganisms) found in nature that can be used to kill or injure people.
The act of bioterrorism can range from a simple hoax to the actual use of these biological weapons, also referred to as agents. A number of nations have or are seeking to acquire biological warfare agents, and there are concerns that terrorist groups or individuals may acquire the technologies and expertise to use these destructive agents. Biological agents may be used for an isolated assassination, as well as to cause incapacitation or death to thousands. If the environment is contaminated, a long-term threat to the population could be created.
The use of biological agents is not a new concept, and history is filled with examples of their use.
Attempts to use biological warfare agents date back to antiquity. Scythian archers infected their arrows by dipping them in decomposing bodies or in blood mixed with manure as far back as 400 BC. Persian, Greek, and Roman literature from 300 BC quotes examples of dead animals used to contaminate wells and other sources of water. In the Battle of Eurymedon in 190 BC, Hannibal won a naval victory over King Eumenes II of Pergamon by firing earthen vessels full of venomous snakes into the enemy ships.
During the battle of Tortona in the 12th century AD, Barbarossa used the bodies of dead and decomposing soldiers to poison wells. During the siege of Kaffa in the 14th century AD, the attacking Tatar forces hurled plague-infected corpses into the city in an attempt to cause an epidemic within enemy forces. This was repeated in 1710, when the Russians besieging Swedish forces at Reval in Estonia catapulted bodies of people who had died from plague.
During the French and Indian War in the 18th century AD, British forces under the direction of Sir Jeffrey Amherst gave blankets that had been used by smallpoxvictims to the Native Americans in a plan to spread the disease.
Allegations were made during the American Civil War by both sides, but especially against the Confederate Army, of the attempted use of smallpox to cause disease among enemy forces.
Biological agents could either be found in the environment using advanced detection devices, after specific testing or by a doctor reporting a medical diagnosis of an illness caused by an agent. Animals may also be early victims and shouldn't be overlooked.
Early detection of a biological agent in the environment allows for early and specific treatment and time enough to treat others who were exposed with protective medications. Currently, the U.S. Department of Defense is evaluating devices to detect clouds of biological warfare agents in the air.
Doctors must be able to identify early victims and recognize patterns of disease. If unusual symptoms, a large numbers of people with symptoms, dead animals, or other inconsistent medical findings are noted, a biological warfare attack should be suspected. Doctors report these patterns to public health officials.
Bioterrorism and biowarfare today: A number of countries have continued offensive biological weapons research and use. Additionally, since the 1980s, terrorist organizations have become users of biological agents. Usually, these cases amount only to hoaxes.