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Summer 2000
The Hot Zone
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The vision of a bioterrorist attack or lethal disease run amuck is the stuff of shock fiction and bad television movies, but to epidemiologist Scott Layne these nightmare scenarios lurking in the closet are very real.

By Gary Taubes
Photography by Mojgan Azimi

The world is getting smaller every day, a fact that seems to instill a sense of acute anxiety in anyone who has given much thought to the spread of infectious diseases, whether naturally or through the malevolent means of bioterrorism or biowarfare.

In the dawn of the 21st century, everything and everywhere seems to be a plane flight away. This includes hemorrhagic fevers from the rain forests, the latest round of influenza from China or drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis, courtesy of the prison system of the former Soviet Union. Add to this the bacteria or viral agents of choice for biological munitions or terrorist acts - anthrax, for instance, or Lassa fever or any number of microscopic killers, less publicized but equally deadly - and the ease with which our world can suddenly be sown with havoc and death is truly terrifying.

To Scott Layne, an associate professor of epidemiology at the UCLA School of Public Health, these scenarios are the stuff of everyday life. They seem to flow effortlessly from his memory, an endless playback of apocalyptic visions, complete with numbers and factoids about lethality fractions and dispersal rates: the number of spores of anthrax, for instance, needed to generate an infectious cloud should you happen to step on them; the optimal weather conditions for delivering a biomunition to maximize havoc. Layne will give you a rundown on the world's top-10 infectious diseases or the top-10 most-likely agents for bioterrorist attack with the same ease and vigor that movie buffs will run down their favorite sci-fi films or record buffs their all-time, top-10 "flip sides." Ask him if he considers himself an expert in these fields and he will first describe himself as a "rank dilettante" and later correct himself to suggest that he knows as much about them as anyone of his generation, although considerably less than those individuals who actually worked in the biomunitions laboratories of the U.S. and the former Soviet Union.

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