Acute Communicable
Disease Control

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County of Los Angeles
Department of Public Health
Acute Communicable Disease Control
313 N. Figueroa Street, #212
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Phone: (213) 240-7941
Fax: (213) 482-4856

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Acute Communicable Disease Control
Bioterrorism: Frequently Asked Questions

What is bioterrorism?
Biological terrorism is the use of biologic agents (bacteria, viruses, parasites, or biological toxins) to intentionally produce disease or intoxication in a susceptible population to meet terrorist aims.


What are some of the diseases possibly associated with an act of biological terrorism?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have listed a group of diseases that are of highest concern because they have one or more of these characteristics: can be easily spread person to person; can cause high mortality; can cause public panic and fear; or can require special action for public health preparedness. This "Category A" list includes the biological agents that cause anthrax, plague, smallpox, botulism, tularemia, and the viral hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola.


How likely is a biological terrorism attack in Los Angeles County?
The likelihood of a large-scale bioterrorist event is currently thought to be low, given the high level of technical sophistication required to develop a weapon to disperse the biologic agents in the manner necessary to infect massive numbers of persons. Nonetheless, the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services is focusing its efforts on improving the ability to detect and respond to such an event, should it occur.

How prepared is Los Angeles County for a biological terrorism attack?
Los Angeles County has emergency response plans in place to deal with hazardous chemical or biological events, as well as other disasters; the County agencies exercise these plans on a regular basis. These plans involve the coordination of multiple agencies involved in law enforcement, public health, fire, emergency medical services, and disaster response, in conjunction with other city, county, state, and federal officials. For example, Public Health has developed systems for rapid detection and investigation of disease outbreaks that could be the first indication of a biological attack. Early detection will be very important so that persons at risk can be identified and managed appropriately

Stockpiles of antibiotics that are effective against the most likely bacterial bioterrorist agents are already in place locally and will be made available in the event of a bioterrorist attack.

Have biological weapons ever been used in the United States?
Yes, but on a very limited scale. In 1984, 750 people became ill after eating from salad bars that had been intentionally contaminated with salmonella (a diarrheal disease) by followers of a religious cult (the Bagwan Rajneesh) in a small town in Oregon in an attempt to influence a local election. Thus far, all threats of anthrax releases in Los Angeles County have been determined to be hoaxes.

What can I do to protect myself and my family against biological terrorism?
Prepare as you would for an earthquake or other emergency, including ensuring that you have a portable radio, flashlight, extra batteries, and several days' supply of food and water for your family. Have a plan to contact all family members if something happens during the work day. Public Health or other authorized agency will use the news media to release information and instructions you may need to protect your health.

Where can I get anthrax vaccine?
Anthrax vaccine is only available to members of the military, since they may be at higher risk of exposure because of their occupation. At this time, public health officials do not recommend routine vaccination of civilians with anthrax vaccine. In the event of exposure, treatment with antibiotics and subsequent vaccination will be provided.

Should I ask my doctor to prescribe preventive antibiotics against anthrax, plague, or other bacterial bioterrorism threat diseases?
Inappropriate use of any antibiotics leads to increased antibiotic resistance among many microorganisms that cause common bacterial infections, and may also result in serious adverse effects, including allergic reactions and interactions with other medications. Taking prophylactic antibiotics (use of a medication before exposure to prevent infection) carries some risk and, in the absence of any evidence of a release of a biologic agent, currently provides no benefit.

Given the risks associated with inappropriate antibiotic use and since medications from the national stockpile would be rapidly available for prophylaxis of exposed persons following a confirmed bioterrorist event, the LAC DHS strongly recommends that physicians not prescribe antibiotics for their patients to use now or to stockpile for the future.

Should I buy gas masks for my family?
No. Most gas masks are not designed to provide protection against biologic agents, and gas masks would only protect against chemical agents if worn at the time of release. Since gas masks are only effective for several hours without changing filter cartridges, it is impractical for persons to wear these masks continuously. They need to be fitted correctly to work properly, and improper use of gas masks can cause serious injury or even death in persons with chronic heart or lung disease. Given the lack of any benefit and possible risks associated with inappropriate use of gas masks, the LAC DHS strongly recommends against their use
Public Health has made reasonable efforts to provide accurate translation. However, no computerized translation is perfect and is not intended to replace traditional translation methods. If questions arise concerning the accuracy of the information, please refer to the English edition of the website, which is the official version.
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