U prof: Smallpox threat greater than anthrax

Robyn Repya

The fear of letters containing anthrax after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was exaggerated and misguided, said University microbiology professor Martin Dworkin.

Dworkin – who spoke to alumni and students at the St. Paul Student Center on Saturday – said anthrax is not nearly as contagious or as deadly as smallpox.

“One has to view these sorts of things with a little more skepticism then sensationalism,” he said.

“I don’t want to give the impression that this isn’t a serious problem or threat, but there is a misplaced emphasis on anthrax – smallpox is scary,” Dworkin said.

He said smallpox is a highly contagious and lethal virus for which there is no treatment.

“If there were really a huge outbreak, the system would be overwhelmed completely,” he said.

Dworkin said anthrax is weak because it’s a bacteria. It’s vulnerable to antibiotics if caught before a toxin is created after germinating in the host.

“It’s not a weapon of destruction, but a weapon of disruption,” Dworkin said.

Using anthrax as a weapon is highly ineffective, he said, and was probably used because of the hysteria it would cause.

“There were probably thousands exposed to the letters, but only five deaths,” he said.

Dworkin said the public frenzy was encouraged by sensationalistic press stories, written to sell papers rather than to inform.

“The postal system is going to be spending billions of dollars to figure out how to sterilize every piece of mail,” he said. “It strikes me as a ludicrous waste of money.”

Adrienne Kari, a biochemistry senior who attended the talk, said people are misinformed about anthrax because they rely on promotional snippets used by news stations before a broadcast but miss the whole story.

But Kari said she empathizes with the media’s difficult position.

“It’s a hard issue. You have to sensationalize it to a certain extent to get people’s attention,” she said.

It is imperative that more be done to prepare for the possibility of a smallpox attack, Dworkin said.

He said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only hold approximately 7 million doses of the smallpox vaccine.

“Our population is essentially unprotected and vaccination is the only viable response,” he said.

Dworkin said a ring vaccination method would be the most effective means of treatment for an infected person. To perform a ring vaccination, a team of doctors establishes a ring of people in proximity to the infected person, who are then immediately vaccinated.

But the ring method, which was used during smallpox outbreaks in India and Pakistan, would be more difficult in the United States because the population is more mobile, he said.

For the method to work, people cannot leave the vaccination area.

Dworkin said when fighting biological agents people must be realistic about the severity of the threat and the risks involved.

Phill Lawonn, alumnus, said it is hard to get through the hysteria surrounding such a hot-button issue, but he said understanding the reality of the issue is important.

“Yes, there are bad things out there, but you have to be lucky to get (biological agents) to work the way you want them to,” he said.