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Australia's First Bioterrorism Attack

Now, I never condone biological warfare. It's bad ju ju and I am morally opposed to it, especially as a microbiologist. That being said however...

I find the 'attack' on the Indonesian embassy kind of amusing, in a black humour kind of way. I mean, really, I just know how sensationalised this event is going to be, and how much work is is practically going to guarantee me and people like me in the future... and it's all due to that silly girl (silly for getting caught or silly for going about the trial the way she did) Schappelle oh-what-an-odd-name-I-have Corby.

I'm not too fussed about the incident itself because, quite frankly, I'm pretty sure that the "Bacillus-type bacteral powder" is going to turn out to not be anthrax. And even if it were anthrax, the chances of it making anyone ill are pretty darn slim, particularly because I'm sure anyone who came in contact with it is already on antibiotics and thus, largely, completely protected from disease.

I mean, really, Bacillus is so dull, old-school, and really not as scary as people make out. And none-too-hard to grow, either. Cook some brown rice, then leave it in a warm place for a few days. Boom - you have yourself some Bacillus which can make people very, very sick (if they eat it). Welcome to the world of bioterrorism.

This is what people don't seem to understand. Bacteria cover everything. EVERYTHING. That whole thing about washing your hands ater you go to the bathroom? Within a couple of hours your hands are going to be covered with bacteria from your unmentionables anyway, because unless you autoclaved your hands (not advisable), you're going to leave viable bacteria/spores behind which will just grow back. Did you know that one of the nastiest lower-respiratory tract disease causing bugs is found naturally in the nose?

I mean, these people (who ever they are) aren't even *trying*. That and they have doomed the little miss Corby to certain further imprisonment - no government these days buckles under such petty threats. And what is more petty that a Bacillus?! (Well, maybe E. coli, I suppose...) For the love of Koch, Australia is host to one of the most unpleasant non-heamorrhagic visuses I have ever heard of from a readily easily-accessable source - much easier than growing enough Bacillus spores to make a frightening amount of 'white powder of biological origin'.

I am full of contempt for the entire situation. Although, I tip my hat to the emergency responce teams; they seem to have done an excellent job.


Jun. 2nd, 2005 02:12 am (UTC)
Also...you might wish to clear-up something here; you may be giving some people the impression that washing your hands after visiting the lavoratory doesn't benefit public health.
Jun. 2nd, 2005 05:41 am (UTC)
Sure, it has some public health benefit... but not as much as people seem to think.
Jun. 2nd, 2005 06:15 am (UTC)
I'll give you that one...washing hands *before* doing things is where the major benefits are found. Although consider this. You are in a communal toilet system, washing your hands. Someone comes out of a toilet cubicle after flushing, walks straight to the door, *grabs the handle* and opens the door, then exits. Knowing where their hand has probably just been, how do you feel about having to grab that handle yourself?

Its a numbers game. There's a chance of something infecting you. The less spores/cells there are present, the less the cumulative probability it'll happen. By reducing the starting count from millions to hundreds (or whatever), you reduce your overall exposure to that agent, while it's busy trying to make-up the headstart you just denied it.

Back to that door handle - whatever pathogens that person was cultivating in their gastrointestinal tract, your risk of exposure would have been less had they washed their hands. It's not about protecting you from you, its about everyone else protecting you from them.

(Not to mention you are likely immune to your own flora, having been exposed to it so often.)

Sorry if that sounded preachy.
Jun. 2nd, 2005 11:39 pm (UTC)
See, this highlights the difference between chemistry-oriented scientists and biology-oriented scientists. :)

Almost every single microbiologist I know probably seems to other people pretty lax when it comes to cleanliness and hygine in some way or other... and yet tend to get ill less often and/or pass on infections less often. They know exactly what they need to be careful of, what they can get away with, and what won't help one bit. Because they understand the sheer magnitude of the forces their battling with, and don't try to control it, but rather work around it.

Because, you know, there is no 100% fully reproducible biological system. When you start dealing with biology, you're dealing with chance and probability rather than x + y = z.

Chemistry, on the other hand (much like physics, in many ways) is an almost fully controlable science. You can directly manipulate what is going on, influence it, and make it do your bidding. And if anything doesn't work properly, you can pin-point exactly why - not just shrug your shoulders like us lazy microbiologists and say, "Meh, it's probably just because it's Tuesday".

Chemists (and people like chemists) are more likely than biologists to be the crazy germ-freaks. No offence intended, by the way. :) I have a feeling it's not because they don't understand what they are dealing with (ie, bacteria) but more the fact that they can't control it as well as they'd like to.

The chemist will always be worried about the person who touched the door handle without washing their hands - the microbiologist will assume it has happened and deal with the consequences. Because you can't control the population (and thus the environment in general) - you can only control yourself.

Besides, I (like most microbiologists) am of the opinion that exposing your immune system to low doses of pathogenic microbes is a good thing in the long run. Keeps those antibodies a-circling. :)
Jun. 3rd, 2005 12:57 am (UTC)
Heh. Fooled you. I'm not a straight chemist. I'm a Chemist/Biochemist, double major. I used to teach Microbiology to Environmental Health Inspectors :)

But we kind of agree that it's not predictable, and that it's a numbers game. I agree that you can't *positively* control exposure to pathogens, but you can *negatively* control exposure by reducing the particle count. And the less particles (bacterial/viral/whatever) that you come in contact with the less *chance* you'll get an infection or get sick. It's the difference between someone turning their head when they sneeze versus doing it into your face. In both cases you'll undoubtedly inhale aerosol containing mucosal flora, but in one case there is far less chance you'll get sick because of reduced exposure.

I'm on the fence about the "exposure" to pathogens bit. Sounds fun until someone dies. I'd let my baby eat pretty much any non-faecal matter they found on floor, so there I'm in agreement. A mature immune system in an adult? Not quite as robust as a youngsters...I'd tend to be more careful.

We used to do some great experiments with the first years. Touch their hand to an agar plate. Get them to go wash it. Touch another agar plate. Incubate. Watch their faces the next week when their results show more bacteria on the *washed* hand. Thinking about that experiment made me do some more experiments of my own and changed my hand-washing habits.

We'd also get them to drop open plates in public areas for 15 minutes to catch airbornes. It was during one of these sessions I took a sterile swab and sterile water and swabbed down the inside door handle of the mens loo. I then just used the swab to plate out. That was scary and funny at the same time.

The final years had a great prac - get foodstuffs from around the university, process them in a "stomacher", then culture the supernatent and do taxonomy on what grew. You could *guarantee* E.Coli in the cream buns, Lysteria in pre-packed fish-fingers and Salmonella Typhimurium(sp?) in any salami you'd care to buy. One year we even got some Klebsiella and Clostridium.

I'm rambling. Sorry.
Jun. 2nd, 2005 10:06 am (UTC)
FOr the sake of others, I lick my hands hands clean after I go ^_^
Jun. 2nd, 2005 11:02 pm (UTC)
Oh that's gross. Don't get started on some stuff I *have* seen.