Bioterrorism and Anthrax: The Threat

Key points

  • Bacillus anthracis, the cause of anthrax, is a likely agent for a bioterrorist act.
  • If there is an anthrax emergency, get treated quickly to avoid serious illness and death.
  • Take steps to be ready for an anthrax emergency, including knowing how to get antibiotics and keeping family medical histories.
Blurred business people on their way from work

Anthrax and bioterrorism

Bioterrorism involves intentionally releasing viruses, bacteria, or toxins to harm people, livestock, or crops. Bacillus anthracis, the cause of anthrax, is a likely agent for such attacks. We don't know if or when another anthrax attack might occur.

However, federal agencies, along with health departments across the country, are actively preparing in the event of a U.S. anthrax emergency. The CDC and other federal agencies will coordinate closely with local and state partners.

Use as a weapon

If there's a bioterrorist attack, Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that causes anthrax, might be used. Anthrax is dangerous. It can make people and animals sick and even cause death. Anthrax is a likely choice because:

  • It occurs naturally, can be made in a lab, and lasts in its environment.
  • It can be released quietly, without anyone knowing.
  • Tiny spores could be put into powders, sprays, food, and water.
  • You may not be able to see, smell, or taste the spores.
  • It has been used as a weapon in the past.

For almost a century, several countries have had active anthrax bioweapons programs. In 2001, letters with powdered anthrax spores were mailed in the United States, causing 22 infections, including 12 in mail handlers, and 5 deaths.

How dangerous is anthrax?

Some biological agents are designated Tier 1 agents because they have the highest risk of being used for a terrorist event. They can cause many deaths or harm the economy or important infrastructure. They pose a severe threat to public health and safety.

Bacillus anthracis is a Tier 1 biological select agent due to its potential to cause great harm. It can cause death if it's not treated immediately, especially in its inhaled form. Having, using, or transferring B. anthracis is regulated by CDC's Federal Select Agent Program.

Possible signs of an attack

An anthrax attack can take various forms, such as through mailed letters or contaminated food or water. It could be released into the air, which can lead to anthrax spores being spread by wind or by being carried on people's belongings. Even a small amount of anthrax can infect many people.

Inhaling released anthrax spores can make people sick very quickly. If an attack goes unnoticed until doctors observe unusual illness patterns in emergency rooms and alert public health authorities, it could lead to many severe illnesses and deaths.

How you can be prepared

It's important for people and communities to be prepared if an anthrax attack happens. You and your family can be prepared by having a basic emergency preparedness plan and knowing what to do if there is an anthrax emergency.

Get a kit, make a plan, stay informed

For details about how to put together an emergency kit, develop a family disaster plan, and stay informed about all types of emergencies, visit CDC's Center for Preparedness and Response. These basic preparedness steps would be essential during an anthrax emergency.

If you're exposed to anthrax, you would also need to know how to do the following:

Get antibiotics

Getting antibiotics quickly is essential to saving lives during an anthrax emergency. Your community might get antibiotics and medical supplies from the federal government at dispensing points (PODs). These PODs could be in familiar places like schools or convention centers.

You'll be able to find the nearest location and know what to bring to the POD by paying attention to:

  • TV and radio updates
  • Health department's website
  • Messages from community leaders

PODs efficiently distribute medicine, but since many people will likely need the medicine, expect to stand in line. At the POD, you'll fill out a form with basic medical history. Staff will review it to determine the appropriate antibiotic for you.

Start taking your antibiotics immediately, follow the instructions, and take all of the medicine until it runs out.

Keep Reading: Treatment of Anthrax

Keep a family medical history

In some cases, you can pick up antibiotics for household members. Make sure you know each of their medical histories, including:

  • Medical conditions
  • Allergies
  • Any medicines they're already taking
  • Each child's weight

Bring this information to a POD during an emergency to make sure you get the correct antibiotics for your entire family.

Know the symptoms

Know the symptoms, particularly for a dangerous form of the disease called inhalation anthrax. Be ready to seek medical care if you experience any of the symptoms of anthrax.

Keep Reading: About Anthrax

What CDC does to prepare

CDC works with other federal agencies and health departments across the country to prepare for an anthrax attack. Activities include:

  • Providing funds and guidance to help health departments strengthen their abilities to respond to all types of public health incidents and build more resilient communities.
  • Providing training in emergency response for the public health workforce and healthcare providers, as well as leaders in the public and private sectors.
  • Coordinating response activities and providing resources to health departments through the CDC Emergency Operations Center.
  • Regulating the possession, use, and transfer of biological agents and toxins that could pose a severe threat to public health and safety through the CDC Select Agent Program.
  • Promoting science and practices to strengthen preparedness and response activities.
  • Ensuring that the United States has enough laboratories that can quickly conduct tests when anthrax is suspected.
  • Working with hospitals, laboratories, emergency response teams, and healthcare providers to make sure they have the medicine and supplies they would need if an anthrax attack occurred.
  • Developing guidance to protect the health and safety of workers who would respond during an anthrax emergency.