Biological agents are organisms or toxins that can kill or incapacitate people, livestock, and crops. Communicable diseases, like the flu virus, are the most common causes of the biological disaster, but there always remains the possibility that these agents could be used as weapons.
Most biological agents are difficult to grow and maintain. Many break down quickly when exposed to sunlight and other environmental factors, while others, such as anthrax spores, are very long lived. While bioterrorism is not a very likely threat to the Ellis County, we regularly face communicable disease outbreaks. The Ellis County has developed coordinated response plans that allow us to respond to something as common as the seasonal flu outbreak to something much larger, such as a biological attack.
BIOLOGICAL INCIDENT VERSUS EPIDEMICS / PANDEMICS
So what’s the difference between the flu “bug” circulating around your school or office and a flu epidemic? Epidemics exceed what is expected. Many people are expected to get the flu each year but if flu cases skyrocket to an unpredicted level, it’s considered an epidemic. A pandemic is a global outbreak of a disease that occurs when a new virus appears in the human population, causes serious illness, and then spreads easily from person to person throughout the world.
The H1N1 virus reached pandemic status in the winter of 2009 to 2010 and led the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to change flu vaccines the following season. The best thing you can do to prepare for the possibility of an epidemic or pandemic is to stay alert and informed. You can also visit the CDC website for more information. The Dallas Health Department is an excellent source of information on health issues in your community, and where to find vaccines if appropriate.
PREPARING FOR AN EPIDEMIC
- Make sure your Emergency Supply Kit is ready.
- Educate yourself about types of epidemics and how they may affect you.
- Follow directions from officials about sheltering-in-place or evacuating.
- Practice healthy habits that may protect you and others later: wash your hands, cover coughs and sneezes, and stay home from work or school if you are sick.
In the event of a biological attack, public health officials may not immediately be able to provide information on what you should do. It will take time to determine what the illness is, how it should be treated, and who is in danger. Watch television, listen to the radio, or check the Internet for official news and information including signs and symptoms of the disease, areas in danger, if medications or vaccinations are being distributed, and where you should seek medical attention if you become ill.
The first evidence of an attack may be when you notice symptoms of the disease caused by exposure to an agent. Be suspicious of any symptoms you notice, but do not assume that any illness is a result of the attack. Use common sense and practice good hygiene.
If you become aware of an unusual and suspicious substance nearby:
- Move away quickly.
- Wash with soap and water.
- Contact authorities.
- Listen to the media for official instructions.
- Seek medical attention if you become sick.
If you are exposed to a biological agent:
- Remove and bag your clothes and personal items. Follow official instructions for disposal of contaminated items.
- Wash your body with soap and water and put on clean clothes.
- Seek medical assistance. You may be advised to stay away from others or even quarantined.
AFTER A BIOLOGICAL ATTACK
In some situations, such as the case of the anthrax letters sent in 2001, people may be alerted to potential exposure. If this is the case, pay close attention to all official warnings and instructions on how to proceed. The delivery of medical services for a biological event may be handled differently to respond to increased demand. The basic public health procedures and medical protocols for handling exposure to biological agents are the same as for any infectious disease. It is important for you to pay attention to official instructions via radio, television, and emergency alert systems.