A biological threat is typically associated with the deliberate release of a biological agent, such as a bacteria, virus, or toxin in an act of terrorism; however, such a threat could very well result from an accident in a research lab.
Being prepared for this type of disaster requires a basic understanding of the dangers associated with biological agents, having a good first aid book and kit on hand, and access to immediate medical treatment if needed.
According to the Sunshine Project more accidents have happened in bio-defense and other high containment labs in recent years than the public knows about. It is not clear if the federal government is even aware of the extent of the problems.
The rash of bio-lab accidents is a result of the massive expansion of the bio-defense program, which has brought research on bio-weapons agents to scores of new labs in recent years.
Regardless of how they are dispersed most agents must be either inhaled, enter through a cut in the skin or be eaten to make you sick. This includes eating animals that have been exposed or by drinking contaminated water. Biological agents can also be harmful to crops and livestock.
Two Agents Used Most Often as Biological Weapons
Biological Warfare - Anthrax and smallpox are the two with greatest potential for mass casualties and civil disruption.
- Both are highly lethal: the death rate for anthrax if untreated before onset of serious symptoms exceeds 80%; 30% of unvaccinated patients infected with variola major could die.
- Both are stable for transmission in aerosol and capable of large-scale production. Anthrax spores have been known to survive for decades under the right conditions. WHO was concerned that smallpox might be freeze-dried to retain virulence for prolonged periods.
- Both have been developed as agents in state programs. Iraq has produced anthrax for use in Scud missiles and conducted research on camelpox virus, which is closely related to smallpox. A Soviet defector has reported that the former Soviet Union produced smallpox virus by the ton (Kortepeter & Gerald).
What to Do if Exposed to Biological Agents
The first evidence of a biological threat may be when you notice symptoms of the disease caused by exposure to an agent. Be suspicious of any symptoms you notice, but do not assume that any illness is a result of the attack.
- Move away quickly.
- Remove and bag your clothes and personal items. Follow official instructions for disposal of contaminated items.
- Wash yourself with soap and water and put on clean clothes.
- Contact authorities.
- Seek medical assistance. You may be advised to stay away from others or even quarantined. Have plan to evacuate or shelter in place.
- Listen to the radio or TV news stations for official instructions.
Signs and Symptoms of Exposure to a Biological Agent
If a family member develops any of the symptoms below, keep them separated from others if possible, practice good hygiene and cleanliness to avoid spreading germs, and seek medical advice.
- A temperature of more than 100 degrees
- Nausea and vomiting
- Stomach ache
- 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 you become aware of an unusual and suspicious release of an unknown substance nearby, it doesn't hurt to protect yourself. Be prepared to improvise to protect your nose, mouth, eyes and cuts in your skin.
Cover your mouth and nose with layers of fabric that can filter the air but still allow breathing. For example, two to three layers of cotton such as a t-shirt, handkerchief or towel. Otherwise, several layers of tissue or paper towels may help. It is very important that most of the air you breathe comes through the mask or cloth, not around it.
Do whatever you can to make the
best fit possible for children.
If someone is sick, you should practice good hygiene and cleanliness to avoid spreading germs.
- Wash your hands with soap and water frequently.
- Do not share food or utensils.
- Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.
- Consider having the sick person wear a face mask to avoid spreading germs.
- Plan to share health-related information with others, especially those who may need help understanding the situation and the specific actions they need to take.
Note that it will take time to determine what the illness is, how it should be treated, and who is in danger.
Use common sense and practice good hygiene.