Anthrax and Smallpox - FAQ's

Last Editorial Review: 10/16/2001

Category A Biological Disease: -- The U.S. public health system and primary health-care providers must be prepared to address varied biological agents, including pathogens that are rarely seen in the United States. High-priority agents (Category A) include organisms that pose a risk to national security because they:

  • can be easily disseminated or transmitted person-to-person;
  • cause high mortality, with potential for major public health impact;
  • might cause public panic and social disruption;
  • and require special action for public health preparedness.

These agents/diseases include: Bacillus anthracis (anthrax), Clostridium botulinum toxin (botulism), Yersinia pestis (plague), Variola major (smallpox), Francisella tularensis (tularemia), and viral hemorrhagic fever.

Q) What should I know about anthrax?

Anthrax. Our course of action for preventing anthrax after exposure in the civilian population would be with antibiotics. Vaccination is not recommended, and the vaccine is not available to health care providers or the general public. We do not recommend that physicians prescribe antibiotics for anthrax at this time. We currently have enough antibiotics to prevent the disease in 2 million persons exposed to anthrax, therefore we could rapidly get preventive medicine to those who may be affected by this disease, which cannot be transmitted between people.

Q) What should I know about smallpox?

Smallpox. Vaccination is not recommended, and the vaccine is not available to health providers or the public. In the absence of a confirmed case of smallpox anywhere in the world, there is no need to be vaccinated against smallpox. There also can be severe side effects to the smallpox vaccine, which is another reason we do not recommend vaccination. In the event of an outbreak, the CDC has clear guidelines to swiftly provide vaccine to people exposed to this disease. The vaccine is securely stored for use in the case of an outbreak. In addition, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson recently announced plans to accelerate production of a new smallpox vaccine.

Q) What should I do to be prepared?

Preparedness. We continue to hear stories of the public buying gas masks and hoarding medicine in anticipation of a possible bioterrorist or chemical attack. We do not recommend either. As Secretary Thompson said recently, people should not be scared into thinking they need a gas mask. In the event of a public health emergency, local and state health departments will inform the public about the actions individuals need to take.

For more information, please read the following articles:

Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

Portions of this article were provided with the kind permission of the Centers for Disease Control.

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