biological warfare

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The use of pathogenic organisms as weapons in armed conflict and/or the deliberate destruction of public health defenses against pathogens, such as water purification systems, as was done in Iraq in the 1992 Gulf War. This is an ancient practice, recorded in medieval wars when infected corpses were catapulted over the walls of a besieged city or flung into wells. Blankets infected by smallpox patients were used by colonizing Europeans to infect indigenous populations in the Americas. In the world wars of the 20th century, combatants on both sides experimented with strains of anthrax, bubonic plague, and other contagious pathogens, but their use was limited to a few experiments, for example, by the Japanese in their war against China in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Since the 1950s, several nations, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and the former Soviet Union, are known to have continued experiments, ostensibly to develop effective countermeasures, but perhaps also to determine whether such weapons would have strategic value. Biological warfare presents a very serious public health problem, especially if combined with deliberate destruction of public health infrastructure and withholding of medical supplies and similar countermeasures. See also bioterrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMD). For more details, see http://www.sis.nlm.nih.gov/Tox/biologicalwarfare.htm.

Subjects: Public Health and Epidemiology.

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