August 29, 2016
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What is bioterrorism?

Bioterrorism is a form of terrorism where there is the intentional release of biological agents (bacteria, viruses, or other germs). This is also referred to as germ warfare. Terrorism is defined by the United States government as the "unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives." The term "terrorism" does not imply what weapon is being used. In addition to biological agents, terrorists can also utilize traditional weapons (guns), chemical agents and nuclear bombs. While a biological agent may injure or kill people, animals, or plants, the goal for the terrorist is to further their social and political goals by making their civilian targets feel as if their government cannot protect them. Many biological agents are found in nature; however, they can be modified by the terrorist to make them more dangerous. Some of these agents can be transmitted from person to person, and the infection may take hours or days to become apparent.

What are the biological agents that can be utilized for bioterrorism?

While any germ, bacteria, or virus could potentially be utilized by terrorist, there are a number of biological agents that have been recognized as being more likely to be utilized. The reason for these agents being of concern is based on their availability to terrorists and the ease by which these agents can be disseminated. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has developed a classification system for biological terror agents, which is available on their web site (Categories). The classification is based on the likelihood of the agent being used and the risk posed by each agent. The agents (and the diseases they cause) are listed in table 1, including hyperlinks for those wishing to learn more about a specific agent or disease. However, it is almost impossible for most people to memorize all the details about each of these agents. It is more important for the general public to understand the risk of bioterrorism and the appropriate response to a terrorist attack.

Biologic agentDisease caused by the agent
Bacillus anthracisAnthrax
Clostridium botulinum toxinBotulism
Yersinia pestisPlague
Variola majorSmallpox
Francisella tularensisTularemia
Filoviruses (for example, Ebola, Marburg) and arenaviruses (for example, Lassa, Machupo)Viral hemorrhagic fevers
Brucella speciesBrucellosis
Epsilon toxin of Clostridium perfringensFood poisoning
Salmonella species, Escherichia coli O157:H7, ShigellaFood poisoning
Burkholderia malleiGlanders
Burkholderia pseudomalleiMelioidosis
Chlamydia psittaciPsittacosis
Coxiella burnetiiQ fever
Ricinus communis (castor beans)Ricin toxin poisoning
Staphylococcal enterotoxin BFood poisoning
Rickettsia prowazekiiEpidemic typhus
Vibrio choleraeCholera
Cryptosporidium parvumCryptosporidiosis
Alphaviruses (for example, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, eastern equine encephalitis, western equine encephalitis) and flaviviruses (for example, West Nile encephalitis, Saint Louis encephalitis, dengue fever)Viral encephalitis
Influenza virusInfluenza
Mycobacterium tuberculosisMDR TB and XDR TB
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/5/2016


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