In 1976, Karl Johnson, a world-renowned expert on infectious diseases for the Center for Disease Control (CDC), received an urgent phone call: "An entire hospital has been wiped out and we still don't know what's behind the outbreak!"
Johnson boarded the next plane for Central Africa and there, near the fetid banks of the Ebola River in Northwestern Zaire, a horrible fever of unknown origin was raging. Several hundred deaths later, the disease vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared. The researchers eventually determined that it was a blood-borne virus, unprecedented, until then, in medical history.
The case of the Ebola virus is a warning that new armies of deadly viruses--though most are relatively obscure and perhaps deceptively fragile--may be waiting for the opportunity to infect unsuspecting human populations. (You may recognize this scenario as the basis for the biological movie thriller Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman.)
An outbreak of the Ebola virus would be unthinkable at a modern, well-equipped hospital in the United States, but that hasn't stopped Karl Johnson from pondering the alternative outcomes. There are frightening "what-if" scenarios that haunt him like a recurrent nightmare more than a decade later.
"What would we have done if the virus was spread by cough droplets in the air?" he asks. "If that were the case, there's no doubt in my mind that Ebola fever could have qualified as the Andromeda strain, and we'd have all died." (As we go to press, there is a report of another Ebola death in Africa as a result of a monkey bite.)
The Present Threat
In a span of less than 15 years, the United States alone has been stricken by a wave of new infections. Toxic shock syndrome, Legionnaires disease, AIDS, Lyme disease and hanta virus have emerged from obscurity to become household names. Infectious disease experts fear an escalation of new and possibly more deadly epidemics in the future. Indeed, some candidates already loom on the distant horizons, isolated in tiny geographical pockets. Why this sudden explosion of pestilence?
A Losing Battle
During the 1950s and 60s the successful use of antibiotics and vaccines led many people to assume that the war on infectious disease had been won. Unfortunately, the war is still on due to changes in human behavior or in the microbes themselves.
To be sure, changing morality associated with sex and drug use have contributed to the spread of highly lethal diseases--AIDS being a leading example. Also, with air travel now more affordable, infectious agents previously confined to one corner of the world can jump across continents.
Among the more alarming infectious diseases laying siege to the current human population are tuberculosis, rheumatic fever, sexually transmitted diseases and disorders caused by antibiotic- resistant strains of bacteria or fungi. Tuberculosis, as an example, continues to take a toll worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, one-third of the world's population is infected with TB, and after three decades of decline TB is again on the upswing.
Researchers are also discovering a new, darker side to summer's vegetable bounty. Our nation's love affair with fresh, uncooked produce is now being conclusively linked to outbreaks of diseases, and this time it isn't pesticides or toxins.
In a series of recent discoveries, epidemiologists are now beginning to take full measure of what has been an unrecognized problem: bacteria and viruses hitchhiking on fresh vegetables. In 1988, iceberg lettuce gave 200 people in Louisville hepatitis; in 1989-90, fresh melons sickened hundreds with salmonella.
Microbiologists think these are the culprits in a quarter of all U.S. viral stomach diseases--an astonishing conclusion for viruses so new, no one's figured out how to grow them in the laboratory!
"Now that extremists are willing to use weapons of mass destruction, they have crossed the threshold that experts have watched with dread for two decades," says Bruce Nelan in the April 3, 1995 edition of Time.
Commenting on recent police raids of a cult in Japan, one newspaper reported that the group had sufficient chemical materials to wipe out 4.3 million people. The leader of the cult, Shoko Ashahara (who calls himself "Today's Christ"), wrote in his book, Disaster Approaches the Land of the Rising Sun, that Armageddon will arrive via a gas cloud from the United States (which is said to be ruled by the Freemasons). Ashahara predicts that the end of the world will occur by the year 2000 and would leave behind his enlightened followers and 10% of everyone else. Obviously, Ashahara has not bothered to read the Biblical Armageddon scenario.
The potential for biological/chemical terrorism is frightening. For a few thousand dollars, a terrorist group can develop a biological weapon just as devastating as a small nuclear bomb. For example, at the mere cost of $10-20,000, one could obtain anthrax spores (bacteria associated mainly with livestock and animal infections) commercially. A mere eight grams would inflict heavy casual ties in a one-square-mile area. An airborne bacteria, anthrax would cause death by pneumonia and suffocation.
Marvin Cetron, president of Forecasting International Ltd, a Virginia-based think tank, co-authored an exhaustive study for the Pentagon last year. He thinks a chemical or biological attack on the U.S. is increasingly likely "perhaps within the next five years."
Biological Warfare Examples
Biological materials have always been a part of modern weaponry development. Biological agents have been used in previous wartime environments, with the most recent alleged use in the Gulf War. Although there are a number of international agreements that decry the use of biological weapons, its research still continues.
In 1972, the Soviet Union signed an international agreement to end biological weapons production. How sincere the USSR was in signing that agreement was demonstrated seven years later, when experiments in biological warfare caused an outbreak of anthrax in Sverdlosk, killing 69.
Although the new Russia denies it, experts agree that there are stores of biological weapons still hidden in the vast country. Many of these weapons can be smuggled across borders in coat pockets, causing concern over the ease with which terrorists may acquire such weaponry. Russia has passed regulations on the control of these materials, but these are "quite loose" according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a chemical safety group.
The Soviet organization for chemical weapons production, Biopreparat, employed over 25,000 people and continued to operate even after the safety convention of 1972. In Koltsov, scientists experimented for years on how to release hemorrhagic fever and Venezuelan encephalitis. Tests were also carried out in Leningrad, with particular regard to the tularaemin virus.
There is also evidence that a terrifying new nerve agent has been developed by renegade Soviet scientists. Code name "Newcomer," the agent is reportedly ten times more powerful than its American equivalent, "VX." Again, Russia denies the existence of "Newcomer," but when scientist Dr. Vil Marrzayanov discussed it in a Russian interview, he was arrested immediately for "revealing official secrets."
The Biblical Perspective
Most of us are familiar with the plagues inflicted upon Egypt in Exodus 5. After the Egyptians were stricken with a series of plagues, including infestations of lice and flies, Pharaoh condemns himself and his land by stating, "I and my people are wicked, and deserve what is brought against us," and he allows the Jews their freedom.
Commentator Matthew Henry writes, "The plagues were standing monuments to the greatness of God, the sinfulness of sin and standing monitors to the children of men in all ages not to provoke the Lord to jealousy nor to strive with their maker."
In Revelation 16, immediately after John's vision of Armageddon, seven "bowl" judgments are poured onto the earth. "And I heard a great voice out of the temple saying to the seven angels, Go your ways, and pour out the bowl of the wrath of God unto the earth." The bowls include "foul and painful sores upon men" (Rev 16:2) and the sea becoming "like the blood of a dead man" (Rev 16:3). They will cause man to "blaspheme the name of God, who has power over these plagues; and repent not to give Him glory" (Rev 16:9).
Plagues can be expected as part of the scenario that the Bible predicts for the "last days". They will also be exploited to justify a centralized world government-- the "New World Order."
For those who know their Bible and have a personal relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ, rather than creating an atmosphere of fear these tragic incidences should draw us closer to the Creator Himself and our incredible destiny now on the horizon. But it's time to do our homework. May we be prepared to minister to those who have yet to discover the Redeemer of Mankind.