The biological agents like, fungi, bacteria, protozoa, viruses, etc, which can kill or at least incapacitate humans, animals and plants can be misused as bio weapons. The biological weapons are the living organisms that reproduce within their host organism. These weapons also known as germ warfare results in disease causing organisms. These weapons are toxic materials produced from pathogenic organisms usually microbes or artificially manufactured toxic substances that are used to intentionally interfere with the biological processes of the host i.e. humans, live stock and crops. These weapons are used to threaten and generate fear, morbidity or mortality among the human population.

The wars where biological agents are used as weapons is not something new. As we turn the pages of history we can find various incidences related to this bioterrorism. In the year 1710, Russians used the plague victims against Swedes. In 1767, during the French and Indian war, the blankets used by the small pox victims were provided to the Americans which resulted in the epidemic of small pox. Both the world wars have witnessed the same situation. During World War I, the infected horses and mules were sent to the allied lines by Germany. During World War II, several Chinese people were killed with biological agents like anthrax by the Japanese military unit. During the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965, a scrub typhus outbreak in northeastern India came under suspicion as bioterror. The incidents of intentional bacterial contamination of food in US in 1971 & 1984. The anthrax attacks in Japan in 1993 and in US in 2001 killing 5 people. India's defence and intelligence outfits were alert to the outbreak of pneumonic plague, well known in biological warfare, in Surat and bubonic plague in Beed in 1994, which resulted into several deaths and sizeable economic loss. The most suspicious 1996 outbreak of dengue in Delhi and the outbreak of unidentified encephalitis in Siliguri, eastern part India.

The biological agents have a wide range of effects. They are obtained naturally and could result into epidemic effects. These viruses, biotoxins, rickettsia and bacteria can be introduced into the human body through ingestion, dermal penetration and inhalation. These biological agents can be inhaled through aerosols in an efficient way and could result in a massive attack of thousands of people.

The Center of Disease Control (CDC) classified the bioweapon into three types based on the risk, transmissibility, mortality & morbidity produced due their effect, i.e., Category A, Category B and Category C.

Category A: these are the high-priority agents that pose a risk to national security as they can be easily disseminated or transmitted from one person to another. It resulted into a higher mortality rate and have the potential for major public health impact. This might cause public panic and social disruption and also require special action for public health preparedness. The agents responsible for the epidemic are Bacillus anthracis (Anthrax), Yersinia pestis (Plague), Francisella tularensis (Tularemia), Clostridium botulinum Toxin (Botulism), Variola major (Small pox), Filoviruses ( Viral hemorrhagic fever ) and Arenaviruses (Viral hemorrhagic fever).

Category B : this is the second highest priority agents including those that are moderately easy to disseminate. This results in moderate morbidity rates and low mortality rates and requires specific enhancements of diagnostic capacity and enhanced disease surveillance of CDC. The involved biological agents are Brucella species (Brucellosis), Clostridium perfringens , Epsilon toxin, Salmonella species, Escherichia coli, Burkholderia mallei (Glanders), Chlamydia psittaci (Psittacosis), Coxiella burnetii, Staphylococcal enterotoxin B, Rickettsia prowazekii (Typhus Fever), Vibrio cholerae, Cryptosporidium parvum , Alphaviruses, Eastren Equine Encephalitis and Western Equine Encephalitis.

Category C: in this category, the pathogens are engineered for the mass dissemination due to its availability, ease of production and dissemination and its potential for high morbidity and mortality rates and major health impact. The agents are: Nipah Virus and Hanta Virus.

There are various mechanisms for the introduction of these dangerous agents into the human body. The aerosol spray is the easiest method of dispersal which results in the victimization of large number of people. The food and water contamination is more cumbersome. The spores of biological agents like, anthrax can also be dispersed through envelope. The people or animals in the latent illness where the organism can't be identified are also used for this purpose.

The bio weapons are the main target of terrorists as they the production is simple, diagnosis and detection is delayed and their zone of attack is also large. The microbiologists and Infectious disease consultants help in the diagnosis of these agents. The Center of Disease Control (CDC) proposed a network of laboratories for the effective control of any bioterrorism threat or attack. The laboratories play a key role in the early detection of biological agents. They provide routine diagnostic services, rule-out, and referral steps in the identification process. There are about 25,000 private and commercial laboratories in the United States of America which is responsible for investigation and/or referral of specimens. These include the state and local public health, military, international, veterinary, agriculture, food, and water testing laboratories. The National laboratories, including those operated by CDC, U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), and the Naval Medical Research Center (NMRC) are responsible for the specialized strain characterizations, bioforensics, select agent activity, and handling of highly infectious biological agents.

The decontamination of the affected patients is usually not an issue. By the time the patient has developed symptoms or the release is identified, most of them would have showered and changed their clothes. As soon as the attack of these infectious agents are announced, the exposed individuals should be treated within 24 - 48 hrs. Their belongings and clothes should be stored in a sealed bag for the further examination. The spores are generally very hard in the environment. They survive for a longer duration in the soil. The instruments used should be sterilized properly. The co-ordination of several agencies is required for the effective control of bioterrorism. The earlier detection and recognition is necessary for the appropriate action. It is better to avoid it as the consequences are fatal.

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Geetanjali Murari
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