Several cases of exposure to the potentially deadly disease anthrax in the United States - and possibly other countries - have raised fears of a new terrorist threat. That has led to international concern, as well as offers of help. Among the first countries to volunteer its assistance was Russia.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union built a huge stockpile of weapons of mass destruction for use in the event of a military confrontation with the United States. Among the weapons in that arsenal were extremely virulent forms of anthrax and a system to deliver the disease. Now, Russia is offering to help its old enemy prevent further exposure to anthrax.
Earlier this week, the Russian health ministry said Russia could provide the United States with a vaccine against anthrax, in whatever quantity America would like.
Valentin Pokrovsky is a professor at the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences. Mr. Pokrovsky says the Russian vaccine is better than the one available to American military personnel.
One shot of the Russian vaccine provides immunization for up to one year, Russian scientists say, while the U.S. variant requires a number of shots over a period of time, is in limited supply, and is usually reserved for the military. But, Russian scientists caution that a vaccine might not be the answer to any widespread outbreak of anthrax, since it works only if administered before exposure to the disease.
Sergei Pak is the head of the infectious diseases department at the Moscow Medical Academy. He says that in order for vaccinations to be effective, the United States would have to know who was deemed a likely target. Mr. Pak said it would be extremely difficult and expensive, as well as unnecessary, to vaccinate the entire country.
In addition to its research into the use of anthrax as a weapon, Russia also has experience dealing with the consequences of the disease. In 1979, about 70 people died after anthrax spores were accidentally released from a biological weapons laboratory near the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, or Sverdlovsk, as it was called then.
Lev Fedorov, president of the Union of Chemical Security in Moscow, said it took a massive effort to clean up the area. Mr. Fedorov says the earth in the surrounding area was removed, the roads were re-paved, and the building was completely cleaned of dust. There were no further cases of anthrax reported after that.
People in Russia are not just familiar with the type of anthrax developed in a laboratory. Anthrax also occurs naturally, and is often found in cattle. Every year, about 30 people in Russia become ill from the naturally occurring type of anthrax. Most people who contract the disease work with cattle that have died from anthrax. They usually get what is called cutaneous anthrax, which comes from touching an infected part of the animal, such as the fur. The anthrax enters the body through the skin, and is easily treatable with antibiotics. Cutaneous anthrax is not as deadly as the inhaled form of the disease.
As potentially deadly as anthrax is, it was not the weapon of choice in the Soviet military during the Cold War. Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent military analyst in Russia. He says using anthrax as a biological weapon to kill people is difficult. But as a weapon to spread terror and panic, it is very effective. "This is more of a terrorist's weapon," he says. "It's unlikely to cause significant deaths. It has already caused mass panic or terror, and so I would believe it's more of a terrorist weapon than a military weapon."
Although Russians are following the anthrax outbreak in the United States closely, so far there is little panic here, partly because Russians are already used to hearing about the disease. Even so Russian authorities say they are taking extra precautions - sorting through mail and checking packages at customs checkpoints. The Russian agriculture ministry has banned cattle imports from Florida, the U.S. state where the first anthrax case was reported. So far, there has been only one incident that sparked fear the anthrax scare may have reached Russia. Earlier this week, a Moscow company received an envelope containing a white powder, but it turned out to be harmless.
As for the offer of help from Russia, U.S. authorities said they appreciate the offer, and will consider asking for Russia's assistance in the future.