Bioterrorism

  • Medical Author:

    Dr. Eddie Hooker is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Services Administration at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also an Associate Clinical Professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Louisville and at Wright State University. His areas of expertise include emergency medicine, epidemiology, health-services management, and public health.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

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How do I know if I have been exposed to a bioterrorism agent?

The symptoms of illness caused by the different bioterrorism agents are frequently very nonspecific. Many of the agents cause a "flu-like" illness. These symptoms would include fever, cough, nausea, vomiting, and headache. It is very hard to differentiate many of the different diseases initially, and tests to confirm the diagnosis often must be done at specialized state laboratories and may require weeks until the results are received.

It is best to stay informed through local news media on what symptoms to look for and when to seek medical care. The health care system simply cannot handle every member in the community demanding to be tested for the disease. Many diseases do not even have a treatment other than supportive care which can often be done at home.

Should I have some antibiotics on hand just in case I get exposed?

While there are a few biological agents that can be prevented by taking antibiotics (for example, anthrax), it is not recommended that you stockpile antibiotics. Antibiotics have a limited shelf life and would likely be unusable by the time the attack occurred. Also, there are many different types of infectious agents, each requiring different antibiotics. All drugs, including antibiotics, have side effects, and taking them inappropriately could cause more harm than good.

Since the likelihood of a biological attack is small, it is better to wait until there has been an attack before getting medications. The U.S. government has stockpiles of drugs that will be immediately flown into a community that has experienced a biological attack (these supplies are rotated to keep them current). Additionally, many large communities also have stockpiles of medications for emergency use.

Medically reviewed by Robert Cox, MD; American Board of Internal Medicine with subspecialty in Infectious Disease

REFERENCES:

Stern, E.J., K.B. Uhde, S.V. Shadomy, and N. Messonnier. "Conference Report on Public Health and Clinical Guidelines for Anthrax." Emerging Infectious Diseases 14.4 (2008): e1.

United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Bioterrorism." <http://www.bt.cdc.gov/bioterrorism>.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/5/2016

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