Biological agents are organisms or toxins that can kill or harm people, livestock and crops. A biological attack is when someone discharges germs or other biological materials that can make you sick. You can either breathe these agents in, eat them to make you sick or they get into the body through a cut in the skin.
The three basic groups of biological agents that would likely be used as weapons are bacteria, viruses and toxins. Most biological agents are hard to grow and keep. Many break down quickly when put in the sun and other environmental factors. Others, such as anthrax spores, are very long lived.
Biological agents can be spread by spraying them into the air. Another way to spread them is by infecting animals that carry the disease to humans. Lastly, these agents can be put in food and water.
Some biological agents, such as anthrax, do not cause contagious diseases. Others, like the smallpox virus, plague and the Lassa viruses, can result in diseases you can catch from other people.
In the event of a biological attack, public health officials may not immediately be able to provide information on what you should do. It will take time to figure out exactly what the illness is, how it should be treated, and who is in danger. Stay tuned to the TV, radio or Internet for official news including the following:
- Are you in the group or area authorities think is in danger?
- What are the signs and symptoms of the disease?
- Are medications or vaccines being distributed? Where? Who should get them?
- Where should you seek emergency medical care if you become sick?
Before a Biological Threat
Unlike an explosion, a biological attack may or may not be quickly known. You may see signs of a biological attack, as was sometimes the case with the anthrax mailings.
More likely, local health care workers will tell about a pattern of unusual illness. There may be a wave of sick people seeking emergency medical help. Emergency radio or television news will probably tell you about the danger. Your area may have some other type of signal that will tell you about the danger. You might get a telephone call or emergency response workers may come to your door
- Check with your doctor to ensure all needed or suggested immunizations are up to date. Children and older adults are particularly weak to biological agents.
- Think about putting in a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter in your furnace return duct. These filters take away particles in the 0.3 to 10 micron range. They will filter out most biological agents that may enter your house. If you do not have a central heating or cooling system, a stand-alone portable HEPA filter can be used.
During a Biological Threat
The first sign of an attack may be when you see symptoms of the disease caused by contact to an agent. Follow these tips during a biological threat.
- Public health officials may not quickly be able to provide information on what to do. It will take time to figure out exactly what the illness is, how it should be treated, and who is in danger. During this time, listen to the television, radio and Internet for official news and information. What you need to listen for are signs and symptoms of the disease, areas in danger, if medications or vaccinations are being given out, and where to go to get medical help if you become ill.
- If you learn of an unusual and suspicious material, quickly get away.
- Protect yourself. Cover your mouth and nose with layers of fabric that can filter the air but still allow breathing. Examples include two to three layers of cotton such as a t-shirt, handkerchief or towel. Otherwise, many layers of tissue or paper towels may help.
- There may be times when you would want to think about wearing a face mask. This will lower the spread of germs if you are sick. Face masks also keep you from coming in contact with contagious germs if others around you are sick.
- If you have been exposed to a biological agent, take off and bag your clothes and personal items. Follow official orders for throwing away dirty (or contaminated) items.
- Wash yourself with soap and water. Put on clean clothes.
- Call the authorities. Find medical help. You may be told to stay away from others or even set apart from people.
- If a family member becomes sick, it is good to be suspicious.
- Do not assume, however, that you should go to a hospital emergency room. Don’t think that any illness is the result of the biological attack. Symptoms of many common illnesses may overlap.
- Use common sense. Practice good hygiene and cleanliness as to not spread germs. Find medical help.
- Think about if you are in the group or area authorities believe to be in danger.
- If your symptoms match those described and you are in the group thought to be at risk, quickly seek emergency medical attention.
- Follow the orders of doctors and other public health officials.
- If the disease is contagious, expect to get medical evaluation and treatment. You may be told to stay away from others or even set apart (quarantined).
- For non-contagious diseases, expect to get medical evaluation and treatment.
- In a declared biological emergency or developing epidemic, there may be reason to stay away from crowds where others may be infected.
If a family member develops any of the following symptoms, keep them away from others. Always use good hygiene as to not spread germs. Seek medical help if needed.
- A temperature of more than 100 degrees
- Nausea and vomiting
- Pale or flushed face
- Thick discharge from nose
- Sore throat
- Rash or infection of the skin
- Red or pink eyes
- Loss of appetite
- Loss of energy or decreases in activity
If someone is sick, you should practice good hygiene and cleanliness as to not spread germs.
- Wash your hands with soap and water often.
- Do not share food or utensils.
- Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.
- Think about having the sick person wear a face mask as to not spread germs.
- Plan to share health-related information with others, especially those who may need help knowing what is going on and what exactly they need to do.
After a Biological Threat
In some cases, such as the case of the anthrax letters sent in 2001, people may be told about potential contact with a biological agent. If this is the case, take note of all official warnings and orders on what to do next. The delivery of medical services for a biological event may be handled differently to respond to greater than before demand.
The basic public health ways and medical rules for handling someone who has been in contact with a biological agent are the same as for any infectious disease. It is important for you to take note to official orders via radio, television and emergency alert systems.
Antibiotics are often the right treatment for the diseases linked with biological weapons. However, the specific drug must match the illness to work. One antibiotic may be right for treating anthrax contact but won’t work for treating smallpox. All antibiotics can cause side effects including serious reactions. Plan to talk with your doctor ahead of time about what makes sense for your family.
Visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention for a full list of potential agents/diseases and proper treatments.
More information on how to get ready for biological events can be found at:
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention
- Biological Attack Fact Sheet: Human Pathogens, Biotoxins, and Agricultural Threat - Document providing preparation guidance for a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threat.
- Federal Emergency Management Agency
Listen to Local Officials
Learn about the emergency plans that have been made in your area by your state and local government. In any emergency, always listen to the orders given by local emergency management officials.