February 19, 2000
Harrier's Harried

As they're so fond of saying on the morning television shows, "now we follow up a story we brought you a few weeks ago." Describing Hash House Harriers, the current version of the old English school game Hare and Hounds, we looked at how the torn-up, scattered scraps of paper, used as a trail of clues, have been replaced by the more environmentally sensitive dabs of baking flour. Alas, the modern world has intruded, bringing new complications to the best of intentions. The Associated Press carried the story a few weeks ago.

A harriers group in Wichita, Kansas, set up a rousing game of Hare and Hounds last year. Rousing in more ways than one. As the two "hounds" passed the Finney State Office Building, they let fly with a handful of flour, marking a spot on the sidewalk for the other players to follow. All well and good. Nice biodegradable flour. Wash away in the next rain. There was only one slight problem. The year before, someone had turned in a report that anthrax had been sent to this same building. Fortunately, the call had been a hoax. Taking no chances now, when the distraught call came into the local 911 center, telling of a mysterious white substance found on the sidewalk, the surrounding streets were closed off for nearly an hour, until the stuff could be identified.

Sheepishly (houndishly?) club members owned up to being the cause of all the uproar and promised to warn emergency dispatchers before holding another chase. Two months later another meet was planned. One slight detail was overlooked - the promise to the dispatchers. Results? Another 911 call, another evacuation, another investigation. Obviously, flour is just not going to work in our current paranoid society. And, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean you're wrong. Or safe.

So what is this anthrax that gives thriller writers a plot device and the rest of us nightmares? In 1979 an explosion rocked a factory in Sverdlovsk, Russia. The product being quietly manufactured there soon became quite obvious. 96 cases of anthrax were reported. 64 people died. There are basically two ways of becoming infested with the disease - through the skin and by inhalation. The anthrax bacterium, usually transmitted by contact with animal hides and hair, can enter the skin and thus the bloodstream through a cut or abrasion. Modern antibiotics can be used immediately after infection with some success, at least for current strains. Inhaled bacterium, the cause of the Russian deaths, can enter and infect the lungs, causing a fatal, untreatable pneumonia. Anthrax spores can remain deadly for long periods, even on products made years previously from infected animals. One of the earlier names for the pneumonia, woolsorters' disease, gives us a clue to the method of exposure and leads us to the story of the chemist turned crystalographer turned microbiologist turned immunologist who unlocked the secrets of anthrax.

Part II next week. For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor.

© 2000 David Minor / Eagles Byte