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Ebola a potential bio-terror weapon

The dramatic nature of the Ebola outbreak in Kibaale district raises concerns about the cryptic intersection between global security and public health disasters.

This is so because Ebola could very well pose an unprecedented frontier of bioterrorism, because it is complicated, with nonspecific symptoms making its generic diagnosis difficult, or even sometimes impossible. Its challenges can no longer be confined to only prevention, but also to preparedness and understanding of the novel pathways of transmission, from which biological threats can be deployed and triggered as public health assassins.

Ebola has capabilities of biological weaponization with catastrophic consequences, especially due to the fact that it lacks adequate and effective vaccines and therapeutics that would counter any prospective mass attacks. Its zoonotic origin, distribution route and exposure in the tropical climatic conditions conceal its incubation and concurrence in these belligerent conditions.

Also, Ebola, being highly contagious, presents an adaptability factor likely to be exploited by biological terrorists willing to be infected by these bio-hazardous agents. The terrorists would then have to deliberately transport themselves into their targeted areas during the incubation period in order to initiate person-to-person transmission, either by secretion contact or airborne dissemination.

The relatively low production cost, that only entails human contact and enormous availability of willing volunteers, which already exists amongst Al Qaeda radicals, poses a threat of unprecedented scale. Al Qaeda and its extremist networks have already carried out numerous terrorist attacks around the globe. Needless to say, arming themselves with Ebola, as a highly effective weapon, would lend them the capacity to unleash a high-impact attack causing mass civilian casualties.

Proliferation of the Ebola virus for bioterrorism may also arise from the way biological specimens are stored, which is unique to agents of viral hemorrhagic fevers. Most virological laboratories are not specialized and equipped adequately for rapid diagnosis and appropriate examination of the Ebola samples. The storage of Ebola virus samples requires maximum security in the specimen laboratories.

This has resulted into the monopoly by some reference laboratories dealing with scientific repositories’ management. This raises the issues of sharing specimens and the illicit use of these infectious agents which can stream into the possible risk of bioterrorism during diagnostic research and procedures.

So far, the eradication of Ebola through containment and human quarantine has been rendered ineffective as the disease keeps cropping up every so often. Either voluntarily or by coercion, patients quarantined and kept away from the public in these critical conditions, feel even worse off being attended to by clinicians wearing protective gear who are typically unable to communicate due to linguistic barriers.

These vulnerable circumstances compromise the patients’ capacity to make conscious and genuinely informed choices over their clinical management. By all standards, in such circumstances, there will be an inevitably increased likelihood of incurring additional or greater risk.

Ebola bioengineering can easily be exacerbated by a wide array of underpinning factors such as residual toxicity and temporality of the Ebola illness, clinical strain and variant presentations and socioeconomic vulnerability of the endemic regions. The Ebola haemorrhagic virus deserves to be deemed as a public health threat of international proportions.

The engagement of the international community in the provision of institutional support and safeguards for the epi loci communities is of paramount essence. Expatriates and international agencies assisting in direct patient care should not be outnumbered by field researchers, epidemiologists and laboratory specialists.

This normative principle of patient care should be precedent over research. Direct observation and epizootiological attention in Ebola outbreaks will lead to more understanding of its rather cryptic epidemiologic natural history, thereby averting its bio-terrorist potentiality.

The author is a graduate in Clinical and Experimental Medicine of University College London


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