Bioterrorism and Botulism: The Threat

Key points

  • The toxin that causes botulism could be used in a bioterrorism attack.
  • Hopefully an attack will never happen. CDC and its partners are prepared to respond, if one does happen.
  • You also can take steps to prepare for an emergency.
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What is botulism?

Botulism is a disease caused by toxin made by Clostridium botulinum and related bacteria. These bacteria are found naturally in many places, but it’s rare for them to make people sick. But, under certain conditions, the bacteria's spores (protective coatings) can grow and make botulinum toxin.

Keep in mind‎

Botulinum toxin is one of the most lethal toxins known. Even a small amount of it can cause serious harm. The toxin attacks the body's nerves and causes difficulty breathing, muscle paralysis, and even death.

What is bioterrorism?

Bioterrorism is the intentional (on purpose) use of a biological agent to sicken or kill people, food animals, or crops. Biological agents include germs and toxins.

Why is botulinum toxin a concern?

Individuals or groups might want to use botulinum toxin a weapon.

A bioterrorism attack that causes botulism is unlikely to happen in the United States. However,

  • Some countries with biological weapons programs have made botulinum toxin.
  • Some groups have tried unsuccessfully to use botulinum toxin to harm people.

The good news is that no reported cases of botulism in the United States have been linked to bioterrorism.

What might happen in an attack

An attack could release botulinum toxin into the food supply or air. Many people could get sick.

We might not know of an attack right away because we cannot see, smell, or taste the toxin.

An attack might be recognized when doctors begin to see many people with symptoms of botulism.

When alerted to the attack, CDC and other authorities will respond. They will communicate information, look for source of the toxin, and help people get the care they need.

What you can do to prepare

You cannot prepare for bioterrorism as you might for another emergency, such as a hurricane or fire. But you can take steps to protect yourself and your family.

Know how to stay informed

Seek information early and often.

Watch TV, listen to the radio, or check the Internet for official news and information. CDC will post information on its website and social media channels, including Facebook and X (Twitter).

No one will have all the answers on Day 1, but CDC and other authorities will communicate information to you as they get it.

Know where to get medical care

In a public health emergency, some hospitals or emergency rooms might become overcrowded with:

  • people who are sick and
  • people who are worried they might be sick.

Local authorities will say where people with symptoms should go to get medical care.

What CDC does to prepare


CDC works with other federal agencies, state and local health departments, and law enforcement authorities across the country to prepare for public health emergencies.

Public health emergencies include bioterrorism and botulism outbreaks. When emergencies happen, being prepared can help save lives.

Aside from planning and practicing responses to emergencies, CDC's preparedness activities include:

Education: Botulism is a rare disease. Most healthcare providers never see a patient with botulism. CDC provides information about the disease to help healthcare providers, other groups, and individuals recognize and respond to botulism.

Consultation: CDC and some state health departments provide expert consultation on every suspected botulism case in the United States.

Supply: CDC and other agencies keep antitoxin in the Strategic National Stockpile that is ready to send to hospitals to treat botulism.

Research: CDC works with scientists to find better ways to treat botulism. It also works with scientists to develop laboratory tests to diagnose the disease faster and easier.

Regulation: CDC oversees the Federal Select Agent Program. This program regulates the possession, use, and transfer of biological agents and toxins for research purposes.

Ways CDC will respond

CDC's public health response activities will include:

Coordination: CDC will coordinate public health activities, including through CDC's Emergency Operations Center, the Laboratory Response Network, and the Strategic National Stockpile.

Communication: CDC will share information with public health partners, law enforcement officials, and the public.

Consultation: CDC will alert healthcare providers to the possibility of patients with botulism and provide expert consultation to help diagnose and treat patients.

Antitoxin release: Botulism is treated with antitoxin, which prevents the toxin from causing more harm. When consultation supports botulism, CDC will release antitoxin from the Strategic National Stockpile.

Investigation: CDC's disease detectives will conduct an investigation to help prevent additional illnesses and identify people who might need treatment.