Table of Contents
What is Bioterrorism?
A bioterrorism attack is the deliberate release of viruses, bacteria, or other germs (agents) used to cause illness or death in people, animals, or plants. These agents are typically found in nature, but it is possible that they could be changed to increase their ability to cause disease, make them resistant to current medicines, or to increase their ability to be spread into the environment. Biological agents can be spread through the air, through water, or in food. Terrorists may use biological agents because they can be extremely difficult to detect and do not cause illness for several hours to several days. Some bioterrorism agents, like the smallpox virus, can be spread from person to person, and some, like anthrax, can not.
Bioterrorism Agent Categories
Bioterrorism agents can be separated into three categories, depending on how easily they can be spread and the severity of illness or death they cause. Category A agents are considered the highest risk, and Category C agents are those that are considered emerging threats for diseases.
These high-priority agents include organisms or toxins that pose the highest risk to the public and national security because:
- They can be easily spread or transmitted from person to person
- They result in high death rates and have the potential for major public health impact
- They might cause public panic and social disruption
- They require special action for public health preparedness.
These agents are the second-highest priority because:
- They are moderately easy to spread
- They result in moderate illness rates and low death rates
- They require specific enhancements of CDC’s laboratory capacity and enhanced disease monitoring.
These third highest priority agents include emerging pathogens that could be engineered for a mass spread in the future because:
- They are easily available
- They are easily produced and spread
- They have the potential for high morbidity and mortality rates and major health impact.
What are the warning signs of a bioterrorism attack?
Although the government continues to search for an early detection system for biological, chemical, and terrorist radiation attacks, none of these systems have been perfected. The medical community is advised to look out for unusual diseases not typically seen in the area. Other potential clues that raise suspicion for a bioterrorism attack include new types of antibiotic resistance in bacteria because some biologic agents are modified (weaponized) to make them more lethal, unusual numbers of cases of a disease, and atypical presentation of diseases.
The general public should constantly be vigilant for bioterrorism. Events that might suggest an attack include a large .number of ill or dead people in a small geographic area, multiple dead animals of different species, and patients with multiple different diseases, indicating a mixed attack
What should I do if there has been a bioterrorism attack?
If you think that you have been exposed to a biological agent, the most important thing to do is to remove your clothing and wash off your skin quickly. Most biological agents cannot penetrate intact skin. Showering with soap and water will remove most agents from the skin. If you have already inhaled or ingested the agent, decontamination using soap and water may not help you but might help prevent exposing other family members or coworkers.
If the biological agent has been released into the air, but you do not believe (or do not know) you have been exposed, you can utilize masks to help prevent the inhalation of the agent. The problem is that standard surgical masks offer little protection. Specialized high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) masks are available that offer better protection; however, they are more expensive, not easily found, and should be fitted to the person using them.
The two most important tools used by public health officials will be isolation and quarantine. Isolation is keeping people known to be ill away from other people. Quarantine is keeping people who may have been exposed away from other people. The problem is that many times we may not know who has been exposed. In these cases, public health officials will likely recommend that everyone stay in their homes and avoid all public gatherings. By doing this, we will isolate those sick and quarantine those infected but who do not yet have symptoms. Those cities that utilized this technique during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 had much lower rates of death than did cities that did not practice good quarantine procedures.
If there has been a bioterrorism attack, the first important step is to get information immediately from the news media as to the right course of action. For some terrorist attacks, it may be correct to try and leave the area; however, for other events, it may be more appropriate to shelter in place. With bioterrorism, there may be the possibility of transmission of disease from one human to another (for example, measles, influenza, avian flu, smallpox, plague, and viral hemorrhagic fevers). In the case of either a bioterrorism attack or just a natural outbreak, it may be necessary to avoid contact with infected people or just remain inside for a period of time until the infected people are no longer contagious. Again, the key action is to understand the recommendations from public health officials as delivered through the news media.