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Identifying and managing casualties of biological terrorism

Amesh A Adalja, MD, FACP
Section Editors
Peter F Weller, MD, MACP
Richard D Zane, MD
Deputy Editor
Allyson Bloom, MD


Terrorism can come in many forms. Biological events have the potential to be more readily disseminated and destructive than chemical or nuclear weapons [1]. The United States Congressional Office of Technology Assessment has estimated that a 100 kg payload of aerosolized anthrax spores, if released upwind of Washington, DC, could result in 130,000 to 3 million deaths, matching the lethality of the hydrogen bomb [2]. Lethal amounts of biological agents are relatively easy to manufacture, conceal, transport, and release. However, there is a growing consensus that manufacture of biological agents requires some amount of tacit knowledge, thus limiting the scope of individuals who have the capacity to initiate a large-scale attack [3].

As with emerging infectious diseases, detection and control of biological attacks depend upon a strong and flexible public health system at the local, state and federal levels. Additionally, well-trained and vigilant front line health professionals are required, especially in detecting covert biological attacks. Primary health care providers will likely be the first to observe and report any unusual illness patterns in the event of such an attack.

This topic will address the history of bioterrorism, the organisms of greatest concern, and the immediate management of persons with possible exposure.

Treatment of established infections, such as anthrax, is discussed in the topics dedicated to those pathogens.

Chemical terrorism is discussed separately. (See "Chemical terrorism: Rapid recognition and initial medical management".)

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Literature review current through: Oct 2017. | This topic last updated: Sep 21, 2016.
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