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Public Health Preparedness Facts

What precautions should public take regarding the threat of bioterrorism?

The Indiana State Department of Health is not recommending any specific bioterrorism-related precautions for the public. However, everyone should have a family disaster plan in place. This would include having the following emergency supplies on hand:

  • A three-day supply of water and food that won't spoil
  • Clothing, blankets, and sleeping bags for all family members
  • First aid kit, including family's prescription medications
  • Battery-powered radio and flashlights with extra batteries
  • Extra set of car keys and a credit card, cash, or traveler's checks
  • Sanitation supplies
  • Special items for infant, elderly, or disabled family members
  • An extra pair of glasses

Should a bioterrorism event occur, it is important that people listen to the instructions of emergency and public health workers. They will need the public's cooperation to perform their duties as rapidly and successfully as possible.

Having a plan in place is necessary for anyone to respond to an emergency, be it a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. For more information please visit the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.  

How likely is a bioterrorist attack?

An attack with bacteria or virus spread in the air would be extremely unlikely because it is difficult to make a bacteria or virus that will survive being spread through the air. Terrorists have tried unsuccessfully to attack with biologic agents in the past.

Will the public be notified?

When it is determined that a biologic event has occurred, notification will promptly follow. Public health authorities have been working to educate physicians and other health care providers to recognize and report the diseases that would most likely be used in a terrorist attack. An event would most likely be recognized by local health care providers who would then notify state and federal health authorities. Not only will the public be notified, there will be frequent updates of important public health messages. Communication in any disaster, including a bioterrorism event, is of the greatest importance.

Are vaccinations recommended in case of a bioterrorism attack?

There are no vaccines being recommended for the public. Please see below for more specific information on anthrax and smallpox vaccines.

Are vaccines for smallpox available?

Smallpox was wiped out in 1979 after a vaccination program, but existed still in two labs - one at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and one in the former Soviet Union. The CDC currently has enough doses of smallpox vaccine on hand to vaccinate all Americans, which would be used if needed for a bioterrorism event. The vaccine would be effective if given within three days after exposure. The federal government, including the CDC, is concerned about the threat of bioterrorism. Plans for a response to such an event are being developed at many levels of the government. These plans do not include widespread use of smallpox vaccine at this point. The benefits and risks of reintroduction of smallpox vaccine are continuing to be examined. For more information on smallpox, click here.

Are vaccines for anthrax available?

Anthrax is a disease found in animals in many places around the world, including the United States. The anthrax vaccine is not available commercially except to the military. For more information on anthrax, click here.

Would gas masks be helpful in the event of a bioterrorist attack?

Because biological or chemical attacks are unlikely to be announced, military gas masks would have to be worn continuously to be protective. For a mask to be effective, it must fit properly and be worn correctly. A mask cannot be worn with facial hair as an effective seal between the mask and skin cannot be maintained, making the mask ineffective. Additionally, the mask does not protect against skin contact with biological or chemical agents providing no protection against skin absorption. A gas mask makes breathing more difficult, increasing the stress on individuals with pre-existing heart or lung problems. The design of gas masks reduces the field of vision and makes working more difficult. It is, for example, very dangerous to drive while wearing a gas mask. Furthermore, since the filters and activated carbon discs need changing after use, it is hard to know how effective a gas mask will be.

Should the public have antibiotics on hand in case of a bioterrorist attack?

We do not recommend that the public keep antibiotics on hand for use in a terrorist attack. There would be time after such an attack to treat large numbers of exposed persons, if necessary. The Strategic National Stockpile consists of medical supplies and antibiotics placed strategically around the country. These supplies can reach Indiana within hours of a request from the Governor.

What is the Strategic National Stockpile?

The Strategic National Stockpile is a large reserve of antibiotics, chemical antidotes, and other medical supplies set aside for emergencies. The Strategic National Stockpile consists of two parts: a 12-hour "push package" and the Vendor Managed Inventory (VMI).  There are 12 identical 12-hour push packages, strategically located around the United States.  The CDC reports that it has the capacity to move these to affected areas in the United States within 12 hours of notification. The Vendor Managed Inventory is a federally owned, vendor-managed cache of drugs and medical supplies that will follow a 12-hour push package, if needed. For more information about the Strategic National Stockpile, click here.

Is it safe to drink water from the tap?

Public drinking water supplies are safe. It would be VERY difficult for a bioterrorist to contaminate our drinking water supplies to cause widespread illness because huge amounts of water are pumped daily from our reservoirs, most used for industrial and other purposes. Anything deliberately put into the water supply would be greatly diluted. Also, water treatment facilities routinely filter the water supply and add chlorine to kill germs.