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
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
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
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
Should I buy gas masks for my
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