Bioterrorism has made the news the past couple days after the discovery that an ISIS terror group laptop contained among other things, a diabolical plan for weaponizing plague. Before this, before the anthrax scares of 2001 ,there was another story. Many of you may have never heard this story; many of you are too young, regardless, it did happen to be the first case of bioterrorism in the United States and I’d like to share that story in public health history.
The year was 1984 in the small town of The Dalles, Oregon (current population around 14,000), in Wasco County. The leader, an Indian guru and mystic, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, settled in Oregon to set up a community for him and his followers. They bought about 65,000 acres of land and took political control of the neighboring town of Antelope (pop. 75) and changed the name to Rajneeshpuram. They continued to expand by transporting thousands of homeless people by the busload to their compound trying to grow their constituency. The local population, whose relationship at first was friendly with the Rajneeshees, turned sour as they disapproved with the way the commune was expanding.
It started as building permits were being denied for Rajneeshpuram. The Rajneeshees decided to attempt to gain political control by trying to win seats in the Wasco County government. To win the elections they decided to take drastic action.
The Rajneeshees decided the way to win the election was to incapacitate the voters of The Dalles so they would be too sick and stay home and the Rajneeshees could win the elections. How would they do this dastardly deed?
Between September and October of 1984, numerous people were coming forth with the horrible symptoms; diarrhea, fever, chills, vomiting and bloody stools. It was confirmed that the citizens were sick with Salmonella enterica Typhimurium, a bacteria that causes food poisoning and gastroenteritis. Public health officials have never seen anything like this, there hasn’t been a case of Salmonella in several years in this county, now they had 751.
Upon interviewing the victims, they were able to establish a common link to 10 restaurants. But unlike more common sources of Salmonella like meats, poultry and eggs, it was linked to lettuce at the salad bars. Upon investigation it was determined that a member either spread it over the food at the salad bar or poured it into the salad dressing. Of curiosity, the town of Rajneeshpuram had a small medical laboratory which had the exact strain in their stock as the strain that infected so many.
In the end, 751 people became ill with 45 hospitalized. Fortunately, nobody perished as result of this diabolical plot. The candidates the Rajneeshees put up for the county seats all lost. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was later arrested for immigration violations and deported. Two high ranking officials for the cult were prosecuted and imprisoned for numerous crimes including second-degree assault for the poisonings.
• Salmonella can be found normally found in poultry, swine and other animals. Ensure you thoroughly cook all chicken, turkey, eggs and other meats to a time and temperature to kill the bacteria.
• Avoid cross contamination in the kitchen with utensils and cutting boards while preparing food.
• Salmonella is commonly found in pets; turtles, iguanas, cats and hamsters. This frequently becomes an issue with the youngsters who handle these pets and do not have the best hand washing habits.
• Do not eat or drink foods using raw eggs or unpasteurized milk.
The story of the Rajneeshees was not highly publicized when it happened. The first thought was contamination by an infected food handler because that was the most plausible explanation. This happened 30 years ago in the United States. For more infectious disease news and information, visit and “like” the Infectious Disease News Facebook page