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Biological Terrorism Agents

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KEY POINTS

  • Biological terrorism agents are bacteria or viruses that make poisons and cause infections. Some examples are anthrax, botulism, plague, smallpox, tularemia, and viral hemorrhagic fevers.
  • Most of the most dangerous biological terrorism agents act slowly. If they are found and treated early, they are usually not fatal.
  • If your child has been or is currently in an area where biological agents have been found AND your child has suspicious symptoms, report them to your healthcare provider.

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What are biological terrorism agents?

Biological terrorism agents are bacteria or viruses that make poisons and cause infections. Some examples are anthrax, botulism, plague, smallpox, tularemia, and viral hemorrhagic fevers. These bacteria and viruses could be used for bioterrorism if they were put into weapons, delivered in envelopes or packages, or spread through the air.

What is anthrax?

Anthrax is a type of bacteria that lives in the soil and forms spores. The bacteria and spores can infect animals and people. Anthrax infections can be fatal if they are not treated early with antibiotics.

Your child may get infected with anthrax if:

  • He handles infected animals or touches something that has the bacteria on it. Most anthrax infections happen when the bacteria enter a cut or scrape in the skin.
  • He breathes the bacteria or spores into his lungs.
  • He eats undercooked meat from infected animals.
  • He injects anthrax, which may be mixed with drugs such as heroin.

Anthrax bacteria are common but anthrax infections are very rare in the US. Anthrax is not known to spread from person to person. Treatment with antibiotics usually cures the infection.

There is a vaccine that can help prevent anthrax infection, but it is not available for everyone. It is recommended only for:

  • People who work with animal hides or furs
  • People who work with animal products that have high rates of anthrax infection
  • People who study anthrax in the lab
  • Some people in the armed services

What is botulism?

Like anthrax, botulism is caused by bacteria that live in the soil. The poison made by these bacteria causes paralysis. It is one of the deadliest substances known. Even a tiny amount can be fatal. It can paralyze the muscles needed for breathing.

Botulism is not contagious. Your child can get infected by eating food that has botulism bacteria, by breathing the bacteria or poison into his lungs, or by getting the bacteria in a wound. A terrorist release of the poison into the air is dangerous only at the time it is released.

If you think food may be contaminated with the bacteria, you can destroy the poison by boiling the food for 10 minutes. If you think that a surface is contaminated, you can clean it with soap and water or a chlorine bleach solution.

What is plague?

The bacteria that cause plague are usually spread by fleas that feed on infected rodents, such as rats. The fleas infect people by biting them. Plague that starts this way is called bubonic plague. However, the plague can also be spread from person to person by coughing, sneezing, or even just talking. Plague spread in this way is called pneumonic plague.

When plague is treated early with antibiotics, the infection is usually not fatal.

What is tularemia?

Tularemia is caused by bacteria that spread to humans by the bite of a tick, fly, or mosquito. It can also be spread by contact with infected animals, such as rabbits or deer. Your child can also become infected by breathing in contaminated dust or air, drinking contaminated water, or handling the carcass or eating the meat of an infected animal without cooking it well first. Tularemia is not known to spread from person to person.

The illness can affect the body in different ways. Tularemia can be treated with several common antibiotics. With treatment, the disease is usually not fatal.

What is smallpox?

Smallpox is caused by a virus that can spread from person to person by coughing and sneezing. It causes a high fever, muscle aches, and a blistering rash. Because it is caused by a virus, smallpox cannot be treated with antibiotics. It is fatal in about 1 out of every 3 people who get the infection. There is no specific treatment for smallpox.

The smallpox vaccine can protect your child if he gets the vaccine before he is exposed to smallpox. A vaccine within 3 days of exposure will lessen the severity of smallpox. The vaccine will not protect people who already have a rash. The smallpox vaccine is not given unless your child is at high risk of being exposed to smallpox.

In 2001, the US government ordered enough smallpox vaccine to vaccinate the American public if there is a smallpox outbreak.

What are viral hemorrhagic fevers?

Viral hemorrhagic fevers are a group of viruses that include Ebola virus, Marburg virus, hantavirus, yellow fever, and Lassa fever. Some viruses are spread to humans by animals or insects; others are spread from person to person.

Some types of hemorrhagic fever viruses can cause relatively mild, flulike illness. However, many of the viruses cause severe, life-threatening disease. There is no specific treatment for any of the viral hemorrhagic fevers.

What should I do if I think my child may have been exposed?

Most of the most dangerous biological terrorism agents act slowly. If they are found and treated early, they are usually not fatal. If your child has been or is currently in an area where biological agents have been found AND your child has suspicious symptoms, report them to your healthcare provider right away. Stay informed. Listen to the news to learn how the outbreak is affecting your community. Follow the instructions of public health authorities.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2016.4 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2015-07-21
Last reviewed: 2015-05-21
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright © 2016 RelayHealth, a division of McKesson Technologies Inc. All rights reserved.
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