Book Excerpt: Bioterror

What does this leave for individuals to do? Plenty, actually. Citizens need to keep informed about what is being done in their name and to think about whether the things that are being done truly serve their interests. Then take that knowledge and use it to pressure our elected representatives at the federal, state, and local levels to do the right thing, fund the right programs, and make sound choices for the future. Each of us has to demand more accountability of our elected officials and not to confuse performances on Nightline with performance of their duties.

You might expect me to advise you to get vaccinated against the most likely diseases to be used in biological terrorism. I won't, though, because it's the wrong thing to do. Yes, we'll need the vaccines and antibiotics for the outbreaks, but not as a part of a routine program.

It goes against the simple realities of statistics. No individual in America is highly likely to be infected by a biological terrorism attack, which after all will affect only those directly exposed or, in the case of contagious diseases, those who come into contact with the initial victims. This means that the likelihood of being exposed to one of these agents for any single American is quite low, kind of like getting struck by lightning. Moreover, getting protected against anthrax requires up to six shots, and the current smallpox vaccine has side effects that would be unacceptable to many people today, especially in light of advances made in producing vaccines with far fewer side effects for other diseases. I worry that disease hustlers will begin encouraging people to pay top dollar to be vaccinated against anthrax and smallpox as moneymaking schemes, pitching their wares to the worried well. Marketers say that sex sells, but sex doesn't have anything on fear. Don't give in to the hype. The appropriate use of these vaccines will be in association with an outbreak, or in advance for a limited number of volunteer public health and health care workers, police, and other personnel needed to maintain our basic infrastructure support during the crisis.

Ultimately, the lesson of this book is that we can't take bugs for granted anymore.

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