Summer 2000 The
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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
Photography by Mojgan Azimi
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.
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.
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.