February 19, 2000
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as a trail of clues, have been replaced by the more environmentally sensitive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
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