10 — Bioterrorism

Bioterrorism is one of the most controversial topics today in the epidemiology and public health/disease surveillance industry.

How does GIS assist in our understanding of bioterrorism and potential bioterrorists?

  • It provides more insight on the social structure of the U.S. and details about specific places where particular cultural patterns exist.
  • It helps us to more fully understand the possibility of social settings influencing how people behave and choose to engage in activities related to or considered precursors to the generation of terrorist activities and/or behaviors.
  • It demonstrates the relationships that could exist between important population factors linked to such behaviors including poverty, population density, interethnic or inner social clashes and hostilities and how these relate to the differences education or lack of available employment or career investment that exist for a group of people.

GIS can be used to look at past criminal and social activities or behaviors registered as potential indicators of these patterns.

GIS can be used to defined the manners in which certain events are more likely to happen, such as the transportation routes linked to certain parts of these behaviors or the possibility that weak barriers to their penetration of the country exist in certain places.

There are some associations which at first sound like they could be more indirectly related to these human activities, but which must be explored for prevention and security reason.  For example, if we were to suspect the in-migration of a new disease pattern to ensue as a potential activity, how would we predict its most likely route of penetration?

There are numerous ways that a disease can enter this country.  So this questions poses still other questions that have to be answered such as:

  • Could the disease come in by way of an infected carrier, knowingly or unknowingly, and if so could it be detected?
  • Could the disease come in by way of object or personal belonging instead of the person?
  • Could the disease come in by way of a zoonotic mechanism. such as a pet or farm animals?
  • Could the disease come in by way of human movement within population density defined regions, or non-human movement based taking an alternative route such as a roadway, railway, of simple border crossing in lower population regions?

There are a number of possible examples of how bioterrorism can be initiated that are demonstrated by the 3D mapping results.  There are also inferences that may be able to developed and/or tested using this analytic method.

In general, there are four ways that a terrorism/bioterrorism event may ensue, due to the following major forms of disease patterns.

  • Impacts on the living environment and make it unsafe for continued human residency due to toxins, radioactivity, water contamination, contaminants release (mines, old industrial waste sites), and the like.
  • Changes in the physical make up and geography of a region and make it more dangerous to reside in.
  • Changes in the natural ecology of a region and make host-vector relations less supportive of life.
  • Changes in the disease ecology of a region, making that region more conducive to supporting more dangerous forms of local disease ecology.

The first example focused on environment requires use of a comprehensive GIS designed to correlate different environmental features.  For example, in the case of a spillage of radioactive waste in the Ashokan Reservoir that feeds New York City, the concern is contamination of drinking water in the New York City setting.  Is this possible?

Upon first inspection we might be considerably concerned about this public health disaster.  But in reality, the math shows us that the immediate effects of such an event are more terror-related than anything else.  The dilution of water by water flowing in from dozens of other water sources makes such an event very hard to predict.  This event is similar to the Salmonella case that took place in an Oregon restaurant nearly twenty years ago, when a public salad bar was contaminated with the purposes of infecting local social and political leaders by the leaders of the local Rajnishi religious group.  The Salmonella was placed in its final target location, but had little to no effect on the people exposed to this potential source.  Pathogenic organism viability and limited concentration were the primary reasons for this failure.


What about the in-migration of a livestock disease with the plan of destroying a part of the local food supply involving a major farm animal?

We see historical examples of this with the in-migration of the Texas Fever and Bovine Tuberculosis.  The first was due to the in-migration of tick-infested steers from the Mexico region into southern Texas, and from there northward along the major travel routes to St. Louis and Chicago.  The second was due to an importation of contaminated cattle from Europe by way of the Brooklyn docks where livestock was imported.  This disease followed the major transportation routes westward, the railroads mostly, infecting inner New Jersey and west into Pennsylvania, a fairly hierarchical pattern diffusion route, and for the smaller in-migration of this disease by way of Boston, we see a radial diffusion route.


The crossing of borderland by infectious disease is another pattern that can be reviewed using GIS.  Such disease patterns can follow the traditional routes and methods of travel defined by past geographers investing disease migration patterns when their cause was not yet known. In a study of more recent yellow fever case data we see evidence for unexpected entries by other geographical routes, suggesting that security is high at the expected routes of entry, low for the other routes.

Much of this research culminated in the following important observations about disease flow which for most of our history was not paid much attention to once the bacterial theory for disease came to be. 

  • Radial patterns for diffusion are probable in the initial phase.
  • Hierarchical patterns of diffusion supersede due to technological advancements and transportation changes.
  • Epidemic outbreaks or disruptions from niduses can have recurring patterns demonstrating certain natural and human ecological prerequisites.
  • Diseases display certain percentages of human versus environmental and ecological dependency.  The important role of spatial analysis is to define how much of that in-migration process is environmentally determined and how much population based.


The following are examples of human-animal ecology diseases that impact the habitability of a given natural setting.

These first examples involve the introduction of disease causing organisms into the ecosystem by way of their zoonotic relationships.

Zoonotic Diseases

The following are examples of disease that bear less animal host-carrier burden and responsibility.  They are capable of relying on other ecological mechanisms to develop their nidus.  As time passes, they perhaps become more adapted to the local settings and are therefore transformed into a natural ecological disease pattern for the U.S.  The oldest example of this may in fact be the African Tapeworm (Taenia), which first probably made it to Western Europe during the 1300s, and from there, or from Africa, to the Americas almost two centuries later.


There are also a number of diseases that have been identified as potential bioterrorism threats.  The following examples of these are provided.