The possibility of a terrorist attack is a scary thought and a very real danger. Terrorists could attack the American public in many different ways, including a bomb or by releasing a chemical, radiological, or biological agent. A biological attack, or bioterrorism, is the intentional release of viruses, bacteria, or other germs to cause illness or death in people or animals. Anthrax is the most likely agent to be used in a biological attack. It only takes a small amount to infect a large number of people. It is inexpensively grown from just a few spores and can be engineered to be drug resistant, which means it’s more difficult to treat with antibiotics.
So what exactly is anthrax?
It’s a naturally occurring bacteria in soil that can be transferred from infected animals to humans, usually by handling animal products, like hides, or eating under -cooked meat. Anthrax can also infect humans by breathing in spores that have been engineered as a weapon. In 2001, anthrax spores were mailed to news reporters and U.S. Senators. These attacks involved letters which held just one gram of powdered spores , about the amount in a sugar packet; 22 people were infected and five people died.
In comparison, an attack that used two kilograms of anthrax, about the size of a five pound bag of sugar, could infect 100,000 people or more. Scientists have developed models of what an anthrax attack might look like. Anthrax sprayed from a plane or truck onto a city is a likely scenario. People might not see, smell, or hear the anthrax being released. This type of attack would lead to inhalation anthrax, the most severe form of the disease, which starts with fever and other flu-like symptoms. Symptoms usually appear one to 42 days after inhaling the spores. Once there are symptoms, it may be too late to treat with antibiotics.
Are We Prepared?
All of this sounds frightening, but CDC and other federal agencies, are working with state and local health departments, are taking steps to prepare the nation for a potential attack. CDC helps manage a program called BioSense, that detects potential bioterrorism releases, including anthrax. BioSense and other local systems help ensure that authorities are aware of an attack and can get medicine to those exposed as soon as the agent has been identified. Medicine for a bioterrorism response is stored in the Strategic National Stockpile. If a terrorist attack occurred, CDC would distribute antibiotics from the stockpile to state and local health departments who would dispense it to affected communities.
Here at CDC we conduct emergency preparedness exercises to help us plan, prepare, and practice what to do in the event of an attack. Exercises may include distributing medical supplies or evaluating a laboratory’s ability to collect and test samples. Other exercises involve subject matter experts who work through an emergency scenario from start to finish, determining all the steps various agencies need to take. We also learn from real emergencies in our communities, such as the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. While the threat of a terrorist attack is frightening, it’s important to remember that CDC and other agencies are taking steps to protect our communities. We have medicine and trained staff ready to act.
You can learn more about anthrax at: emergency.cdc.gov/agent/anthrax