Tularemia On The Mall
According to an article, which appeared in the October 2, 2005 edition of the Washington Post, the presence of tularemia in Washington, D.C., probably has a natural explanation:
Health Officials Vigilant for Illness After Sensors Detect Bacteria on Mall
Agent Found as Protests Drew Thousands of Visitors
"A week after six bioterrorism sensors detected the presence of a dangerous bacterium on the Mall, health officials said there are no reports that any of the thousands of people in the nation's capital Sept. 24 have tularemia, the illness that results from exposure to the bacteria.
"Federal health officials are still testing the samples from air sensors on the Mall and in downtown Washington that collected a small amount of the tularemia agent, which can cause flulike symptoms and is usually treated with antibiotics.
'The bacteria probably was not the result of nefarious activity, according to federal investigators. 'There is no known nexus to terror or criminal behavior. We believe this to be environmental,' said Russ Knocke, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.
"The mission for health officials now is to figure out how the bacteria got there, why they were detected that day and whether they are from a strain that doesn't affect humans....
"Health officials in the Washington area were notified Friday that the filters on biohazard sensors that make up the BioWatch network detected the bacteria Sept. 24, when tens of thousands of people were on the Mall for antiwar demonstrations and the National Book Festival.
"The samples were collected between 10 a.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. Sunday. The naturally-occurring biological agent -- which is on the 'A list' of the Department of Homeland Security's biohazards, along with anthrax, plague and smallpox -- was detected in small amounts, said Gregg A. Pane of the D.C. Department of Health.
"Detection of the bacteria turned into an incident with nationwide implications, because thousands of protesters had come from throughout the country. The infection is not spread from person to person, but tracking potential patients became a coast-to-coast undertaking. Police said that more than 100,000 people attended the rally; organizers put the figure at 300,000.
"After the filters were tested in Washington, further tests were done by CDC laboratories in Atlanta, Knocke said.
"Meanwhile, the CDC was using its nationwide tracking system to look for unusual occurrences of pneumonia-like symptoms in every state, Roebuck said....
"[O]ne theory is that tularemia bacteria, which occur naturally in soil, might have been kicked up by the thousands of feet stomping on the Mall grounds that day.
"Homeland Security and the CDC work together to operate the BioWatch sensors. The $60 million-plus system was created in 2001 to monitor air in more than 30 U.S. cities....
"A similar incident occurred in Houston in October 2003, when two air sensors detected fragments of tularemia bacteria. There were no human cases of tularemia reported after the incident, and some experts in the bioterror field said they believe the incident was actually spurred by a strain of the bacteria that does not affect humans.
"'It's probably something that just lives in the environment,' said Tara O'Toole, who is director of the Center for Biosecurity, sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. 'We forget that microorganisms rule the world. Now we're looking and finding things we didn't know were there.'
"Tularemia, often called 'rabbit fever' because small animals are often carriers in rural areas, was amassed by the U.S. military as a biological weapon in the 1960s." Here in the Washington, D.C., area, we just endured the driest September in a long time--if not the driest September on record. My packed-dirt driveway is a dust bowl, and my lawn is completely dormant. Therefore, this recent detection of tularemia on The Mall could be a naturally occurring phenomenon which would have gone unnoticed without the biosensors.
Even so, I remember back to the anthrax attacks of 2001, when the CDC at first thought that the first anthrax-related victim, the man who died at AMC in Florida, must have been exposed to anthrax in the wild. We soon learned that the presence of anthrax in Florida, New York, and Washington, D.C., was no accident, but rather a deliberate attack or attacks. The anthrax attacks of 2001 have never been solved, and those of us who live in close proximity to them continue to be nervous about the threat from bioweapons.
For all our advances in technology, our understanding of unusual phenomena in nature remains limited. And, this time, the D.C. area didn't go into paranoid mode--a good sign, I think--and our government officials appear to have acted appropriately and prudently. Yet this harmless incident is a reminder of our vulnerability to bioattacks.