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Dimension: Invisible Enemy

Although you might never consider it, but bio-terrorism is something many state leaders think about a great deal.

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What should they do if, say, some terrorist group spread the anthrax virus around the Twin Cities.

In fact, there's a group of leaders that meets to figure out ways to fight an enemy they can't see.

MINNEAPOLIS, Updated 10:00 p.m. CST April 5, 2000 -- It could happen at any time -- during a Minnesota Vikings' victory, or maybe during the Women's Expo, or even during Kids' Fest in St. Paul.

bio2.jpgUnseen, a terrorist releases anthrax or the small pox virus through the ventilation system.

And days later, several thousand people mysteriously begin to die.

This might sound unbelievable, but the experts who deal with biological terrorism say that it can happen here like anywhere else.

"It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when one of these will happen," Dr. Mike Osterholm said.

Osterholm is one of the leading epidemiologists in the country. He said that bio-terrorism and fringe groups in Minnesota are alive and spreading, just like a virus.

"We now know there are a number of different parties, all independent, who have reasons to want to use biological agents against civilian populations," Osterholm said.

OsterholmBack in 1993, two men were arrested near Alexandria, Minn., for possession of Ricin. Police found enough of the deadly powder to kill thousands of people.

"One single individual has the ability to effect hundreds of thousands of people in a single day. That's what scares (me)," Osterholm said.

Being scared is natural, but doing something about it is what matters.

It is the job of Kevin Leuer, director of the Minnesota Emergency Management Division, to make sure that if someone releases anthrax into the community, the number of casualties are kept to a minimum.

Kevin Leuer"I think we're prepared for what we're seeing nationally," Leuer said.

For about a year, a bio-terrorism unit of police, firefighters, doctors and state leaders have been planning and running mock drills.

During the drills, streets and skyways are littered with actors playing victims of deadly gas.

Leuer said that the exercises keep them prepared.

But drills are one thing. Watching thousands of real people collapse on downtown streets are another.

"The large scale event that could occur, I think we still have a little bit of work to do," Leuer said.

The unit also keeps an eye on anti-government groups and on the calendar.

For instance, April 19 is Adolf Hitler's birthday and the day Timothy McVeigh bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City.

"There are about three or four dates that we are focusing on in the month of April," Leuer said.

Although city, state and federal leaders are watching over people, the question arises whether someone can and will release small pox, anthrax or some other biological agents into the air?

It's possible but very unlikely, said Dr. John Hick, who is involved in the state's bio-terrorism unit.

"What we're much more likely to see is a hoax event," said Hick, who works at Hennepin County Medical Center. "When someone says, 'Ha, I just sprayed you with anthrax,' or 'That package you just opened contained anthrax.'"

But that doesn't mean it can't happen.

That's why hospitals like Hennepin County Medical Center have built decontamination units, just in case.

HickHick said that he doesn't want to be an alarmist, but the possibility of it happening should scare you because it scares him.

"I try not to let them, but when you look at the ventilation systems at the Metrodome, and because of our northern climate, most of our skyway systems and sporting arenas are closed," Hick said.

But Hick, Osterholm and Leuer aren't paralyzed by fear. They're motivated to protect us from a deadly virus that might one day be released into the community.

"The worst that could happen is to have a biological terrorism event," Osterholm said. "Even worse than that is to have one and not be prepared for it."

Minnesota's bio-terrorism group meets four times a year and even advises other states on drills and how to be prepared.

In August, the Minnesota Emergency Management Unit will release a full report on just how prepared we are to face terrorism.

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Copyright 2000 by Channel 4000. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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