Bioterrorism Questions & Answers
Bioterrorism is intentional use of infectious biological agents, or germs, to cause illness or death.
The Mississippi State Department of Health, along with other agencies, investigates any reports of potential biological agents and no instances of a purposeful release of a biological agent have been documented in the state.
MSDH works closely with hospital emergency rooms throughout the state, looking for clusters of sick patients which could indicate release of a biological agent. Surveillance systems are in place to rapidly detect an increase in unusual illnesses that might suggest release of a biological agent in the state. Early detection is key to a bioterrorist attack: Rapid detection means rapid response, which results in more lives saved.
The Mississippi State Department of Health does not recommend purchasing gas masks for protection against biological agents. Gas masks are intended for short-term use and would provide protection only if worn at the time of a known release. Masks also must fit properly. Improper use of gas masks can cause serious injury or even death by accidental suffocation, especially among persons with heart or lung disease.
The Mississippi State Department of Health does not recommend stockpiling antibiotics. Inappropriate use of antibiotics can cause a person to develop antibiotic resistance. In addition, using antibiotics without a doctor's prescription can cause serious reactions including diarrhea, abdominal symptoms, rash, allergic reaction, and dangerous interference with other medications. Individuals who stockpile antibiotics would also be more likely to use expired medications. Stockpiling could lead to inappropriate patient decisions to self-medicate, incomplete courses of antibiotics that might result in resistant organisms, the eventual use of expired medications, and/or shortages of national supplies for routine or emergency use.
The federal government has amassed a large stockpile of pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, that are effective against likely bacterial bioterrorist agents. In the event of an attack, medication would be rapidly available.
The best way for a family to be safe in any disaster is to prepare before disaster strikes. Consistent with disaster preparedness guidelines for any disaster, natural or man-made, families should stock a three- to four-day supply of necessities in case they have to remain inside their homes for safety. No specific preparation for a bioterrorist attack, beyond those for other disasters, is currently recommended.
Should a bioterrorist event occur in Mississippi, the public would be informed immediately through the news media about health precautions. If antibiotics or vaccines were recommended, information would be provided on where to get medication from emergency clinics set up by the state in multiple locations in the affected area.
Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis. Anthrax most commonly occurs in hoofed mammals but can also infect humans. In humans, anthrax is primarily an occupational disease identified in persons who have contact with dead animals or animal hair, wool, and hides.
Anthrax symptoms usually develop within seven days of exposure, with most cases occurring within 48 hours. Incubation periods up to 60 days are possible. Anthrax can be spread by inhaling anthrax spores; through skin contact with infected animal products or contaminated soil; or by ingesting contaminated, undercooked meat.
Initial symptoms of inhalational anthrax might resemble a common cold. After several days, the symptoms can progress to severe breathing difficulties and shock. After onset of symptoms, inhalation anthrax is usually fatal. Early antibiotic treatment before the onset of symptoms increases chances for survival. Skin or cutaneous anthrax is marked by a boil-like lesion that appears and eventually forms an ulcer with a black center. Initial symptoms of intestinal anthrax include nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting, and fever, followed several days later by abdominal pain, vomiting of blood, and severe diarrhea.
In the event of an anthrax bioterrorist attack, a rapid investigation would be conducted to determine the time and place of the release and to identify persons exposed who need preventive antibiotics.
Direct person-to-person contact spread of anthrax is extremely unlikely. Even if a person develops symptoms of inhalation anthrax or gastrointestinal anthrax, the person is not contagious to others.
Anthrax vaccine is not available to the general public or medical community. This vaccine is available only for military personnel considered at higher risk for exposure to anthrax in combat settings.
Smallpox is a severe viral infection that was eliminated from the world in 1977. Symptoms include fever, aches, vomiting, and a distinctive rash. Smallpox can be prevented with smallpox vaccination, which was discontinued in the United States in 1972. Persons who have been vaccinated against smallpox in the past probably have only limited, if any, antibody protection against this disease. No known treatment for smallpox exists, although approximately two-thirds of those infected with this virus have survived previous outbreaks. Plans are currently in progress to increase the current stockpile of this vaccine.
In the event of an outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has clear guidelines to swiftly provide vaccine to people exposed to the disease. The vaccine is securely stored by the CDC for use in the case of an outbreak.
Smallpox can spread from person to person. Transmission usually occurs only after the patient develops a fever and a rash. Although no treatment for the disease exists, a vaccine taken even four to five days after exposure can prevent death. In addition to providing protection, the vaccine halts spread of the disease.
Vaccination has been shown to wear off in most people after 10 years but might last longer if a person has been successfully vaccinated on multiple occasions. If smallpox exposure were determined, immediate vaccination would be recommended. In addition to the existing vaccine stockpile, the Federal government recently announced plans to accelerate production of a new smallpox vaccine.
Smallpox vaccine is not available to the general public or medical community. Because of the limited supply and risks of smallpox vaccine, especially in immune-compromised persons, widespread smallpox vaccination in the United States is not recommended.
Most bioterrorism experts agree water reservoirs are an unlikely target. Methods already in place to filter and clean the drinking water supply are considered effective against most biological agents. Chlorine, for example, protects drinking water from other water-borne bacteria and would neutralize most biological agents. Additionally, the large quantity of water in a water supply would significantly dilute a biological agent, limiting its potential to do harm.
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