Bioterrorism, one of the five types of terrorism that come from the acronym CBRNE (see CBRNE article), is the intentional release of a biological agent. There are four types of biological agents: bacteria, viruses, rickettsia and toxins.
Bioterrorism agents are classified by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) into three categories, based on how easily they are spread and the severity of the illness or death they cause. Category A consists of the highest risk biological agents and Category C consists of emerging threats for disease such as influenza and H1N1.
An excellent example of the CDC Bioterrorism Agent Classification system is represented in the table below from Baylor College of Medicine. The table shows the three categories, their definitions, and examples of the types of biological agents that fit into each category.
Bioterrorism is especially concerning because biological agents are relatively easy to access, are extremely difficult to detect, and have a potential for rapid spread with a delayed onset of symptoms. Many biological agents such as pneumonic (inhaled) anthrax, first present as flu-like symptoms, making it difficult to detect. Flu symptoms progress to severe respiratory distress. Death may occur within two to three days of symptoms.
Successful early detection and rapid response to bioterrorism is largely dependent on close cooperation and coordination between public health, emergency management, law enforcement, and emergency medical services.
The general public is encouraged to be vigilant and report signs of bioterrorism to authorities. Events that may suggest a bioterrorism attack include an unusual number of sick or dying people or animals. What should you do? First, do NOT panic. Call 911 immediately and stay away from the area. Do NOT try to rescue people or animals as you risk being contaminated as well.
To learn more, the public is encouraged to attend FEMA’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training near you, which will teach citizens how to respond to biological agents and other types of emergencies.