Terrorism (Biological Attack) – Mitigation (Actions Before, During, After)


A biological attack is the deliberate release of germs or other biological substances that can make you sick. Unlike an explosion, a biological attack may or may not be immediately obvious. While it is possible that you will see signs of a biological attack, as was sometimes the case with the anthrax mailings, it is perhaps more likely that local health care workers will report a pattern of unusual illness or there will be a wave of sick people seeking emergency medical attention. You will probably learn of the danger through an emergency radio or TV broadcast, or some other signal used in your community. You might get a telephone call or emergency response workers may come to your door.[1]

The following are things you can do to protect yourself, your family and your property from the effects of a biological threat:[2] [3]

Actions Before: Determine Risk, Increase Knowledge, Safeguard, Plan

  • Determine the disaster risks in your locale.
  • Learn warning signs and community alert systems.
  • Have a shelter in-place and a mobile disaster supplies kit ready.
  • Create a custom Family Emergency Plan. Make plans for elderly, disabled, and pets.
  • Develop an emergency communication plan in case of separation.
  • Ask an out-of-state person to serve as the "family contact".
  • Check with your doctor to ensure all required or suggested immunizations are up to date. Children and older adults are particularly vulnerable to biological agents.
  • Consider installing a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter in your furnace return duct. These filters remove particles in the 0.3 to 10 micron range and will filter out most biological agents that may enter your house. If you do not have a central heating or cooling system, a stand-alone portable HEPA filter can be used.

Other Preparatory Actions:

  • Physical fitness: Poor physical health reduces your body's ability to resist and fight infections. Regular exercise and balanced meals build and maintain your body's natural resistance to diseases.
  • Personal hygiene: Poor personal hygiene increases your chance of infection. An unclean body provides an ideal breeding ground for disease causing bacteria, germs, and parasites. Washing with soap and water is an effective means of preventing or destroying areas in which these agents breed. Wash hands frequently.
  • Sanitary living conditions: Unsanitary living conditions also serve as an ideal breeding ground for disease, especially with the use of vectors animals and insects thrive in unsanitary conditions, and if left uncontrolled, the spread of disease increases rapidly.
  • Vaccination: Vaccinations must be for a specific agent. Some agents require several inoculations over an extended period of time before immunity is conferred, such as anthrax.

Actions During: Safety Basics, Evacuation, Shelter in Place

The first evidence of an attack may be when you notice symptoms of the disease caused by exposure to an agent. Follow these guidelines during a biological threat:

  • 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 exactly what the illness is, how it should be treated, and who is in danger. However, you should watch TV, 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.
  • If you become aware of an unusual and suspicious substance, quickly get away.
  • Protect yourself. Cover your mouth and nose with layers of fabric that can filter the air but still allow breathing. Examples include two to three layers of cotton such as a t-shirt, handkerchief or towel. Otherwise, several layers of tissue or paper towels may help.
  • There may be times when you would want to consider wearing a face mask to reduce spreading germs if you yourself are sick, or to avoid coming in contact with contagious germs if others around you are sick.
  • If you have been exposed to a biological agent, remove and bag your clothes and personal items. Follow official instructions for disposal of contaminated items.
  • Wash yourself with soap and water and put on clean clothes.
  • Contact authorities and seek medical assistance. You may be advised to stay away from others or even quarantined.
  • If a family member becomes sick, it is important to be suspicious.
  • Do not assume, however, that you should go to a hospital emergency room or that any illness is the result of the biological attack. Symptoms of many common illnesses may overlap.
  • Use common sense, practice good hygiene and cleanliness to avoid spreading germs, and seek medical advice.
  • Consider if you are in the group or area authorities believe to be in danger.
  • If your symptoms match those described and you are in the group considered at risk, immediately seek emergency medical attention.
  • Follow instructions of doctors and other public health officials.
  • If the disease is contagious expect to receive medical evaluation and treatment. You may be advised to stay away from others or even deliberately quarantined.
  • For non-contagious diseases, expect to receive medical evaluation and treatment.
  • In a declared biological emergency or developing epidemic, there may be reason to stay away from crowds where others may be infected.

Cover Your Nose and Mouth
Be prepared to improvise with what you have on hand to protect your nose, mouth, eyes and cuts in your skin. Anything that fits snugly over your nose and mouth, including any dense-weave cotton material, can help filter contaminants in an emergency.

If a family member develops any of the symptoms below, keep them separated from others if possible, practice good hygiene and cleanliness to avoid spreading germs and seek medical advice.

  • A temperature of more than 100 degrees
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomachache
  • Diarrhea
  • Pale or flushed face
  • Headache
  • Cough
  • Earache
  • Thick discharge from nose
  • Sore throat
  • Rash or infection of the skin
  • Red or pink eyes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of energy or decreases in activity

If someone is sick, you should practice good hygiene and cleanliness to avoid spreading germs.

  • Wash your hands with soap and water frequently.
  • Do not share food or utensils.
  • Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.
  • Consider having the sick person wear a face mask to avoid spreading germs.
  • Plan to share health-related information with others, especially those who may need help understanding the situation and what specific actions to take.

Actions After: Get Disaster Relief, Clean-up, Salvage

  • 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.
  • While antibiotics are often an appropriate treatment for the diseases associated with biological weapons, the specific drug must match the illness to be effective. All antibiotics can cause side effects including serious reactions. Plan to speak with your health care provider in advance about what makes sense for your family.

    Visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for a complete list of potential agents/diseases and appropriate treatments.



  1. Ready.gov – Biological Threats: http://www.ready.gov/biological-threats
  2. American Red Cross, CDC – Emergency Preparedness and Response, FEMA – Are You Ready? Guide, Ready.gov, Be a Force of Nature with NOAA’s Weather Ready Nation, National Weather Service Weather Safety
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