Frightening Ourselves to Death

January 29th, 2004

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Is the War on Terror putting more Americans in danger than terrorists are putting Americans in danger?

A fear that smallpox could be used by rogue states or by terrorist groups in a lethal biological attack prompted the Bush administration to inoculate half a million military personnel along with 440,000 public health workers.

This has been deemed simply as a preventative measure and that, “It is prudent to prepare for the possibility that terrorists who would kill, who kill indiscriminately, would use diseases as a weapon,” said President George W. Bush. “And we believe that regimes hostile to the United States may possess this dangerous virus.”

However, the president has admitted there is no information suggesting a smallpox attack is imminent. As well, the Variola virus that plagued humanity with lethal epidemics for thousands of years has been eradicated in the wild since 1979. The only laboratories with samples of the virus were one in the United States and one in Siberia. And in spite of fears the Russians might not have kept close track of their stock of the virus, the Department of Homeland Security admits the Russians might not have had the technology even to effectively develop the viral agent. Facilities found in Iraq by weapons inspectors did not reveal that Saddam’s regime possessed these agents either.

Bush stated he himself would also take the vaccination because, “As commander-in-chief, I do not believe I can ask others to accept this risk unless I am willing to do the same.” The vaccine, which is not made from the smallpox virus but another called vaccinia, can produce severe side effects. Among those side effects, which will hospitalize one out of every thousand and create a disabling day-long illness for on in three, is the possibility of death.

The new smallpox scare is reminiscent of the anthrax hysteria shortly after 9/11. The major difference between the anthrax scare and the new fear of smallpox is that anthrax actually killed a handful of Americans before the population got worked into a frenzy.

The new preventative measures for this seemingly unprovoked fear of a smallpox biological attack on a U.S. city will likely kill and hospitalize more people than any terrorist act that will materialize.

The War on Terror pursued in the manner could potentially have a higher casualty toll than friendly fire in the actual military operations if servicemen have to be vaccinated for all potential biological agents. Still, the Bush administration believes the risks from this pre-emptive measure are worth taking.

“Since our country was attacked 15 months ago, Americans have been forced to prepare for a variety of threats we hope will never come,” Bush said.

With the largest deficit in American history and continued massive allocations for the War on Terror, paying the bill for these pre-emptive expenditures in the years to come should definitely be included among the threats for which to prepare.