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Biological Attack: What to Do

Laws and Treaties Governing Biological Weapons

  • The Geneva Convention of 1925 was the first international agreement to address chemical and biological weapons. It prohibits "bacteriological methods of warfare," but did not outlaw the development of such weapons.
  • The Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention (BWC) of 1972 is the first arms control treaty to outlaw an entire class of weapons and forbids States from developing, producing, stockpiling, or retaining biological weapons or assisting other States in developing these weapons systems.
  • The Australia Group is a loose association of nations that agrees not to export tools and technologies, including pathogens, that have "dual uses" - that is, they can be used for both legitimate and nefarious purposes.

Practical Steps

During a declared biological emergency:

  1. People in the group or area that authorities have linked to exposure who have symptoms that match those described should seek emergency medical attention.
  2. Use common sense, practice good hygiene and cleanliness to avoid spreading germs.

People who are potentially exposed should:

  1. Follow instructions of health care providers and other public health officials.
  2. Expect to receive medical evaluation and treatment. Be prepared for long lines. If the disease is contagious, persons exposed may be quarantined.

If people become aware of a suspicious substance nearby, they should:

  1. Quickly get away.
  2. Cover their mouths and noses with layers of fabric that can filter the air but still allow breathing.
  3. Wash with soap and water.
  4. Contact authorities.
  5. Watch TV, listen to the radio, or check the Internet for official news and information including the signs and symptoms of the disease, if medications or vaccinations are being distributed, and where to seek medical attention if they become sick.
  6. Seek emergency medical attention if they become sick.

Medical Treatment

Table 1 lists general medical treatments for several biothreat agents. In general, bacterial illnesses are treated with antibiotics, and viral illnesses are treated with supportive care, although there are a few specific medications to treat viral infections. Biotoxins are treated with antidotes or antitoxins, if available. Vaccines can prevent or mitigate the effects of a disease. The smallpox vaccine may provide protection even if given 1–4 days after exposure, and the anthrax vaccine can be given after inhalation exposure if accompanied by treatment with antibiotics for a number of weeks.

Methods to control contagious disease include isolation, quarantine, barrier methods (gloves, filter masks, eye protection), and hand washing. Rapid identification of potentially infected persons increases the effectiveness of these methods.

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