Fiction and Bioterrorism:
Sources for Authors
BY KAREN KENDALL
Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock is aware of the potential for an act of bioterrorism in the U.S.
The recently released movie Contagion’s ultimate premise is (Spoiler Alert!) that a lethal disease propagates
across human populations by chance; the source is an infected bat in the wilderness of China. The disease
spreads in much the same way that avian flu does.
But many authors of commercial fiction have taken that premise a step further, attributing an epidemic to
a deliberate act (Robin Cook, Outbreak) or specifically, an act of terrorism. Examples of the latter include
Tom Clancy’s classic Executive Orders, Michael Palmer’s A Heartbeat Away, Daniel Kalla’s Pandemic and Resistance,
Marc Cameron’s National Security, Michael Walsh’s Shock Warning, Richard Reinking’s Pox—and there
are countless others.
While fictional, these stories are based on the very real and increasing threat of bioterrorism in this country,
and several of the authors draw upon medical and/or military backgrounds.
It’s widely believed that more than thirty countries have developed biological weapons of mass destruction,
spanning at least a dozen bacterial and viral agents and toxins. These can spawn diseases such as small
pox, anthrax, viral fevers, and plague, among others. A 2001 article in the journal Military Medicine notes that
100kg of anthrax spores released in the vicinity of Washington, D.C. could result in anywhere from 130,000
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to 3,000,000 deaths from inhalation alone.
While this information, sadly, is no longer either
new or surprising, it’s the fear that an epidemic such
as this will go unrecognized for weeks that is truly
terrifying. While the scenario in Contagion has characters
dying within hours or days of being infected, it’s
all too likely that the initial symptoms of a (covert)
anthrax attack would be far less dramatic. They
could go unnoticed, brushed off as the beginnings of
a common flu, since the early symptoms are similar.
If smallpox were released in a major metropolitan
area, chances are that the first cases would be misdiagnosed
as chicken pox, and then only after an incubation
period of two weeks—during which millions more
people would be exposed to and contract the disease,
which is highly contagious. Continued on page 3
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