Source of European heroin anthrax infection questioned

Questions have been raised by experts in the field of health policy and preparedness about the anthrax outbreaks in Europe that have led to 12 deaths and multiple infections.

Donald A. Donahue, Jr., executive director of the Center for Health Policy & Preparedness at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, and Dr. Stepphen Cunnion, the center's medical director, have raised the specter of a potential terror threat as the culprit in a Washington Times report.

Donahue and Cunnion said that there are two sources for contamination in illegal drugs. The first is by using additives to "cut" the drugs, which increase their quantity for sale on the street. Many substances are used to cut drugs, though using anthrax in large amounts would place the producer at great risk.

The second source for contamination is exposure during production. Cross contamination from tents, containers or utensils made from animal hides is possible if the source of the heroin is a region where anthrax is endemic. This still leaves questions, though, including how high of a concentration is needed to cause significant contamination, why have none of the distributors been affected and why has the outbreak been so localized.

"This leads to a third, more ominous possibility: that the anthrax contamination of heroin is an act of bioterrorism," Donahue and Cunnion said in the Washington Post. "When we first suggested this prospect, colleagues asked, 'But why target heroin users?' Granted, drug abusers exist at the margins of society and often are viewed as lost to the mainstream. Yet they also represent the essence of a society viewed as decadent and evil, especially to a fundamentalist zealot. What better way to accomplish a divine mission than by the very means of the immorality?"

This method of anthrax delivery, they say, would allow for a secure and efficient delivery channel that would avoid detection by customs, law enforcement and health officials to large population centers.

"Absent specific facts, it is impossible to say whether this is a plausible explanation or simply a bizarre coincidence," Donahue and Cunnion said. "What is certain is that this event is a symptom of our continuing state of unpreparedness for a well-planned and -executed bioterror attack."