Drug Hoarding and 'Prisoner's Dilemma'

Nearly 700 million pieces of mail are delivered daily and there have been only a handful of cases, almost all of them treated successfully. By contrast, nearly three quarters of a million Americans die annually from heart and circulatory diseases, around half a million from various forms of cancer, and more than 40,000 in car accidents. Even the much-derided and now almost idyllic-seeming shark menace has resulted in more deaths.

(Incidentally, a positive spin on the anthrax-laden letters is that they may indicate that the perpetrators don't have anything more virulent. Why would they warn us with isolated missives if they were capable of something much more horrific? The terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center did not first crash small Cessna planes into the towers as a prelude to doing so with jumbo jets.)

Another way to limit private stockpiling is for authorities, preferably scientists rather than politicians, to clearly proclaim that penicillin and doxycycline are also effective in combatting anthrax and that there is no shortage of these drugs. Finally, if and when much more Cipro is deemed necessary, government officials can always break the drug's patent, as Canada has done prematurely, and go to generic versions of the drug.

The bottom line is that private stockpiling of antibiotics makes no sense for most people. Nevertheless, for the relatively few who feel especially vulnerable — because of their psychology, physical location, or occupation — buying the drugs is not an irrational way to increase their feeling of security (as long as they refrain from taking them without a very good reason to suspect exposure).

The hysteria generated by the few anthrax-laden letters is dangerous and counter-productive. Resisting it is almost a patriotic duty, and anything that helps to do so is a good thing.

Professor of mathematics at Temple University and adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia University, John Allen Paulos is the author of several best-selling books, including Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. His Who’s Counting? column on ABCNEWS.com appears every month.

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