Biological and chemical terrorism: Questions and answers with links to informative resources

Originally Published: November 9, 2001 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: May 31, 2012
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Dear Readers,

As fallout from the post-September 11th anthrax mailings and government warnings about the likelihood of future terrorist attacks continue, questions about biological and chemical threats and how to protect against them keep pouring in. Since much has already been written and spoken about these topics — especially over the past couple of months — the answers below are brief, with links to other Web sites that go into much greater detail about the issues raised in the questions below. Many of the resources included at the end of this Q&A are frequently updated as the situation changes and more is learned about possible biochemical threats. Visiting these sites over the next weeks may help you to keep informed with up-to-date info.

Hello Alice,

Lately, I have been hearing about Anthrax. What exactly is this and how dangerous can it be?

curious about anthrax

Thank you.


Can anthrax be transmitted from person to person?

Hey Alice,

With the recent outbreak, I was wondering if you could give me some information on the inhalation type anthrax. What exactly happens? What can they do for the person?

Dear curious about anthrax and Readers #2 and 3,

Anthrax has existed for centuries; it is a bacterium that causes disease in animals, and less frequently, in humans. Anthrax cannot be passed from person to person. People have traditionally gotten it through physical contact with infected animals and the hides or wool of those animals — this is the cutaneous form of anthrax. Anthrax can also be contracted through the gastrointestinal tract by way of infected, undercooked meat , and via the air by inhaling the spores of the bacterium (inhalation or pulmonary anthrax). All three types can be treated with antibiotics. Cutaneous anthrax is rarely fatal and most infected persons can expect a complete recovery. Inhalation anthrax is the most serious form of the disease, and if not treated early, can often be fatal. Early symptoms of inhalation anthrax resemble influenza (the flu). Soon after infection, a high fever sets in and the patient develops respiratory distress and a bluish discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes.

Dear Alice,

Can you tell me more about anthrax and the vaccine and cure for it and also if the bacteria can live in cold climates?

Dear Reader,

There is a vaccine for anthrax, but it is not presently available to the general public. Those with possible occupational exposure — such as veterinarians — can receive the vaccine, as have many U.S. military personnel.

There have been stories in the news about people hoarding antibiotics in case of an anthrax attack. The antibiotics used to treat anthrax are available only through prescription, so it would be difficult to stockpile the appropriate medication. Health professionals caution against the unnecessary use of antibiotics, including ciprofloxacin (Cipro). We are already seeing drug-resistant strains of various illnesses that result from the misuse and overuse of antibiotics. Furthermore, antibiotics, similar to other medicines, have side effects that could cause serious complications in some people.

Cipro and other antibiotics may prove useless if an attack were to involve laboratory-altered, drug-resistant strains of the bacteria. Some strains of anthrax are resistant to specific antibiotics, but not to others. It is essential to be examined by a health care provider if you suspect you were exposed to anthrax instead of attempting to medicate yourself.

While it is known that anthrax spores prefer warmer temperatures, there is no indication that colder climates are in any way "safe" from an anthrax attack.

Dear Alice,

What kind of gas mask best protects against anthrax attacks? Is it neurotic to want to carry a mask with me after recent events at the WTC (I ride the subway to and from campus every day)?

Thanks for finding me information about these very unpleasant topics.

Dear Reader,

Your concerns are understandable given the anxiety and fear many people have been feeling since September 11, 2001. Nonstop media coverage of this topic — some of it sensational — no doubt contributes to the unease, as well.

While some people may feel safer carrying a gas mask, it probably won't do them any good. According to one British expert quoted in New Scientist magazine, you would have to buy the right type of gas mask that's been fitted properly for wear. And due to the element of surprise that's inherent in almost every terrorist event, you'd have to wear it constantly to have any protection. However, serious injury or death by accidental suffocation can result from improper use of a gas mask.

People buying gas masks often do not know how old the masks are. In addition to the age, the buyer needs to know what the mask has been used for and where it is from. The filters and activated carbon disks, which filter out particles such as anthrax spores, need to be changed after use and deteriorate with time.

Hi Alice,

I am a graduate of Columbia College — thanks for this service. What are our options for being prepared for an attack of smallpox in NYC — I was vaccinated as a kid but understand that that vaccine is no longer effective and I would need a booster??? Do you have any pertinent information about what the average person can do to prevent falling prey to this disease?


Dear Stan,

You were probably administered one dose of the smallpox vaccine before routine vaccinations ceased in the United States over 25 years ago, as this was standard. There has never been a successful measurement of the length of immunity from the vaccine, but it is believed that the antibodies from one dose begin to decline substantially at 5 to 10 years after being administered. The few people who have received three doses may have up to 30 years of immunity.

Currently, a vaccine for smallpox is available, but only a limited supply and not yet to the general public. You have probably heard in the media about President Bush's decision to vaccinate military and public health workers who wish to receive the vaccine and then offer the smallpox vaccine to the general public in special clinics. The U.S. government has stressed that this is not due to any imminent threat of smallpox attack, but is a precautionary measure. This announcement has generated a good deal of controversy among health officials who warn about side effects of the vaccine and the great cost this measure will place on the public health system, to the detriment of more immediate problems.

This vaccine can cause significant discomfort and severe side effects in about 1 out of every 100,000 people who receive it, including a vaccinia rash, the outbreak of sores on the body, flu-like illness, swelling of lymph glands throughout the body, and fever. And although it is a rare event (about 14 - 52 out of 1 million according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), it is likely that some small percentage of those who get the vaccine will experience life-threatening complications, including accidental infection as a direct result of it, and death (1 - 2 out of 1 million). Certain people should not be vaccinated for smallpox unless directly exposed to the virus, including:

  • persons with weakened immune systems (including HIV/AIDS)
  • those undergoing cancer treatment
  • people who have had organ transplants
  • those with skin conditions, such as eczema (even if not active), psoriasis, shingles, herpes, burns, or chickenpox
  • women who are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • children under one-year-old
  • individuals with a current illness

This is the kind of information that public health officials must weigh when deciding how to approach mass vaccination of a given population.

Dear Alice,

When was the smallpox vaccine stopped?

Dear Alice,

I recently read that the WHO organization is considering resuming its smallpox vaccination program. After the recent cases of Anthrax, it seems very reasonable to do so, given the fact that smallpox is much more contagious and harder to treat then anthrax. Could you give some information on this matter? Would it be advisable for students to get vaccinated, and is it possible to do so through Columbia's health service? What are the risks of vaccination?


Dear Reader #7 and MA,

Routine vaccination stopped in this country in 1972, after a two-year period in which no smallpox was found among the American populace. With the world approaching the objective of total eradication of smallpox (all countries ended mass smallpox vaccination programs in the early 1980s on the recommendation of the World Health Organization), and considering the side effects that smallpox vaccination can have, the decision to discontinue vaccinating in the U.S. made sense at that time. The latest statement from the WHO reaffirms that search and containment of smallpox, not mass vaccination against it, is the best way to halt an outbreak of the disease.

Thus, the smallpox vaccine is not currently being administered to the general public at Columbia or anywhere else. Vaccination will be offered according to a new U.S. government initiative in public clinics sometime within the next two years.

In addition to the desire for more information about biological and chemical terrorism, many people may be dealing with feelings of anxiety, fear, and stress in the wake of these horrible events. Fears about what might happen next looks more at coping with these emotions.

Links to Informative Resources about Biological and Chemical Threats


P.S.: On Tuesday, November 13, 2001, PBS broadcast a NOVA program, "Bioterror." Check the NOVA Bioterror web site for more information.