Recent anthrax cases in Florida raised fears a biological attack on American soil was a real possibility.
The reality is that such an unthinkable act did take place right here in Central Oregon almost two decades ago.
In a bizarre plot to take over local government, followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh poisoned salad bars in 10 restaurants in The Dalles in 1984, sickening 751 people with salmonella bacteria. Forty-five of whom were hospitalized. It is still the largest germ warfare attack in U.S. history.
The cult reproduced the salmonella strain and slipped it into salad dressings, fruits, vegetables and coffee creamers at the restaurants.
They also were suspected of trying to kill a Wasco County executive by spiking his water with a mysterious substance. Later, Jefferson County District Attorney Michael Sullivan also became ill after leaving a cup of coffee unattended while Rajneeshees lurked around the courthouse.
Now a Deschutes County Circuit Court judge, Sullivan said it was never proved he was poisoned, but a Rajneesh doctor said he was one of the targets.
Sullivan worries Americans have forgotten the lessons of the Rajneeshees.
The Rajneesh attack ”tells us it has happened and can happen again. But I've been thinking that we as a community and as a state have forgotten what happened,” he said.
”That would be a huge and tragic mistake.”
The Rajneesh bioterrorism attack has received renewed attention recently, including a chapter in a new book titled ”Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War.” Its authors have appeared frequently on the TV publicity circuit, discussing the nation's vulnerability to germ warfare.
The strange footnote in Oregon history began when the cult moved its headquarters from India to the Big Muddy ranch in Wasco and Jefferson counties in 1981. Soon thousands of red-clad followers descended on the High Desert from around the world.
At first they seemed a benign curiosity to many Oregonians. But that changed after members took political control of the nearby town of Antelope.
Along with stockpiling weapons, they obtained salmonella and other more dangerous bacterial agents from a commercial supply house.
Cult leaders plotted to take over the Wasco County Commission by sickening so many people on election day they could get their own candidates elected.
State and federal health officials at first blamed poor hygiene by restaurant workers, but they later learned the cult was responsible.
The cult collapsed in 1985 after the Bhagwan was convicted of immigration fraud and deported to India, where he died in 1990. His top aide, Ma Anand Sheela, was convicted for masterminding the salmonella attack and other crimes.
A retired intelligence officer with the Oregon National Guard, Sullivan said biochemical terrorism is a threat to the United States. He urged federal, state and local authorities, as well as all civilians, to be vigilant for the rest of their lives.
”There is no short-term fix,” he said. ”It's a longtime obligation.”
Although far from the nation's seats of government, commerce and cultural power, Central Oregon has emergency response plans for most types of terrorism.
But here as elsewhere in the United States, little can be done to prevent another Rajneesh-type bioterrorism attack on open food, officials said.
”As long as any food is open to the public, unless you put armed guards around it, there's absolutely no way to guarantee its safety,” said Michael Skeels, M.D., director of the Oregon Public Health Laboratory.
Skeels, however, emphasized that Oregon authorities have no reason to suspect the state has been targeted by terrorists.
Since Sept. 11, federal, state and local authorities have been in the difficult position of trying to allay Americans' fears about further possible terrorism, while at the same time taking precautions against those same threats.
”A bioterrorism attack in Oregon is unlikely, but we need to be ready,” said Grant Higginson, M.D., the state's top public health officer.
”If we should ever experience such an incident, it could be devastating. For that reason, we've been preparing so we can respond if a biological attack occurred.”
The Oregon Health Division's ”Bioterrorism Fact Sheet” said domestic water supplies would be difficult to contaminate because of security measures, the diluting power of large bodies of water, and standard filtration and treatment that kills most disease-causing agents.
Pre-packaged foods are generally safe and unpackaged food such as fruits and vegetables are generally made safe by washing them before cooking and eating, state officials said.
On Thursday, the Oregon Department of Human Services announced that state and local public health officials have plans in place to deal with the potential threat of biological and chemical terrorism.
In Portland, Central Oregon and other parts of the state, preparations for a potential attack are well under way and include law enforcement, fire departments, health departments, hospitals and other agencies.
The preparations are geared more for emergency response rather than prevention in the case of bioterrorism, but ”if we had a major incident involving a biologic agent, the federal government has stockpiles of antibiotics and vaccines to treat and prevent illness in at-risk populations,” Higginson said. ”These stockpiles can be shipped anywhere in the country in a matter of hours.”