Web Analytics
July Discount All Month with Code: jul5%2024
Close this search box.

Bioterrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction for Healthcare Providers

Contact Hours: 4

All Access Pass

Unlimited access for 1 year
$ 29
Onetime Fee
  • Full Access to All Courses
  • Bundled CE Courses
  • Unlimited CE Courses for 1 Year
  • Meets All States Requirements
  • Fast Facts
  • Optional Pre & Post-Tests
  • Instant Certificate
  • No Automatic Renewal

Individual Course

Instant Access
$ 5 per contact hour
  • Full Access to All Courses
  • Bundled CE Courses
  • Unlimited CE Courses for 1 Year
  • Meets All States Requirements
  • Fast Facts
  • Optional Pre & Post-Tests
  • Instant Certificate
  • No Automatic Renewal

Contact Hours: 4 

This online independent study activity is credited for 4 contact hours at completion.

Course Purpose

To provide healthcare providers within emergency services an overview of weapons of mass destruction, their signs and symptoms, and treatment modalities for various of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or explosive weapons causing that have the potential to cause mass casualties. 


Terrorism is generally considered to be the use of force or violence outside the law to create fear among citizens with the intent to coerce some sort of ideological, financial, religious, or political action. Terror tactics may include biologic, chemical, nuclear, or explosive events. All health professionals need to be prepared for a terrorist attack. Establishing a diagnosis is critical to the public health response to a bioterrorism-related epidemic because the appropriate diagnosis will lead to effective treatments to reduce the morbidity and mortality associated with a terrorist attack. This learning activity will provide an overview of the various weapons of mass destruction, signs, and symptoms that a patient may present with, and the various treatment modalities to reduce morbidity and mortality. 


Upon completion of the independent study, the learner will be able to: 

  1. Define terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. 
  2. Identify resources for information on public health emergencies. 
  3. Associate the various classifications of weapons of mass destruction to their symptomatology and treatment regimens. 
  4. Consider first responder practices and emergency services preparation. 

Policy Statement  

This activity has been planned and implemented in accordance with the policies of FastCEForLess.com. If you want to review our policy, click here.


Fast CE For Less, Inc. and its authors have no disclosures. There is no commercial support. 

Fast Facts: Bioterrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction for Healthcare Providers

To access these Fast Facts, purchase this course or a Full Access Pass.
If you already have an account, please sign in here.

Bioterrorism and Weapon of Mass Destruction for Healthcare Providers Case Study

You are working in the emergency room at your local hospital. While working in the triage area, you encounter a 45 year-old male patient with a vague description of nausea and shortness of breath. Suspecting cardiac symptomatology, you request for a 12 lead EKG. While the EKG is being completed, you encounter another patient, this time a 21 year old female complaining of itching, burning skin, nausea, and shortness of breath. You assess her and your initial differential diagnosis is an allergic reaction. While interviewing and assessing the patient, another patient arrives with her young daughter. The 35 year old mother stated that she was at a local park with her daughter when her daughter began to complain of itchy, burning skin. She says she thought her daughter had some sort of allergy to the grass, but shortly afterwards, she vomited and complained of not being able to breath. The mother stated that she too was experiencing the same symptoms. While interviewing the mother, a group of young men in their 20s arrive to the emergency room. They said they were going to get something to eat at the mall, but while in the parking lot they started to have itchy, burning skin and nausea. One of the young men said that he feels like he is having difficulty trying to catch his breath. You notify the charge nurse on duty that a large group of patients have arrived with similar health complaints, all saying that they were outside when the symptoms began, and they all arrived within an hour. You now suspect that the patients could all be victims of a terrorist attack, and you also suspect that you will have a surge in patients arriving to the emergency room. As part of the emergency services, what else can you do as a healthcare provider to gain accurate information and prepare for the potential surge in patients? The answers to these questions will be revealed as you progress through the learning activity.


Terrorism is generally considered to be the use of force or violence outside the law to create fear among citizens with the intent to coerce an ideological, financial, religious, or political action. Health professionals should be aware that bioterrorism is a perfect vehicle for terrorists to strike fear into the hearts and minds of citizens in the hopes they will bend the will of the people to support their agendas. Terror tactics may include biologic, chemical, nuclear, or explosive events. All health professionals need to be prepared for this potentially catastrophic event.¹

The goal of a terrorist is to create mass hysteria through covert or overt acts. In a covert attack, a terrorist will attempt to take advantage of the element of surprise. If the covert attack is successful, the healthcare system may be quickly overloaded with a large influx of patient volume. Healthcare providers must be diligent in evaluating the possibility of a covert attack when multiple patients arrive with similar signs and symptoms. The sooner a covert attack is recognized, the sooner additional resources can be activated to assist healthcare providers. Unless the system prepares in advance, the number of victims triaged may quickly overwhelm the system and result in the terrorist’s goal of creating mass panic. 

In an overt attack, a terrorist will likely rely heavily on mass hysteria and panic as an impact multiplier, and they may announce responsibility immediately afterwards for a large-scale event. The number of victims of an overt attack quickly overwhelms even prepared systems that have a well-defined emergency response plan. In either a covert or overt terrorist attack, the system may be flooded with victims. 

Because of heightened concerns about the possibility of bioterrorist attacks, public health agencies have new methods of surveillance that are intended to detect the early manifestations of illness that may occur during a bioterrorism-related epidemic. Syndromic surveillance is a method that covers a broad spectrum of activities, for instance monitoring for illness syndromes or events, such as an increase in medication purchases that reflect the prodromes of bioterrorism-related diseases. The goal of  syndromic surveillance is to enable earlier detection of epidemics and a timely public health response before disease clusters are recognized clinically, or before specific diagnoses are made and reported to public health authorities.¹¹ 

Establishing a diagnosis is critical to the public health response to a bioterrorism-related epidemic, since the diagnosis will guide the use of vaccinations, medications, and other interventions.¹¹ 

Terrorism and Mass Casualty as Defined by Government Agencies
The Department of Defense: Terrorism is the unlawful use of violence or threat of violence, often motivated by religious, political, or other ideological beliefs, to instill fear and coerce governments or societies in pursuit of goals that are usually political. 
The Federal Emergency Management Agency: Terrorism is the use of force or violence against persons or property in violation of the criminal laws of the United States for purposes of intimidation, coercion, or ransom. Terrorists often use threats to create fear among the public, to try to convince citizens that their government is powerless to prevent terrorism, and to get immediate publicity for their cause.  
The United Nations: Terrorism is an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-) clandestine individual, group, or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal, or political reasons, whereby—in contrast to assassination—the direct targets of violence are not the main targets. 
The US Code of Federal Regulations: Terrorism is 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. 
A Mass Casualty Incident: A terrorist act that generates more patients than available resources can manage using routine procedures. 
Health Alert Network

Local health authorities, including emergency services, should examine their preparedness repeatedly for a potential bioterrorist attack and routinely review coordination issues with agencies that take place in response. During a bioterrorist attack, the Center for Disease Control’s Health Alert Network (HAN)is the primary method of sharing cleared information about urgent public health incidents.¹⁰ This information is shared with public information officers; federal, state, territorial, tribal, and local public health practitioners, clinicians, and public health laboratories. The HAN collaborates with federal, state, territorial, tribal, and city/county partners to develop protocols and stakeholder relationships that will ensure a robust interoperable platform for the rapid distribution of public health information. The HAN has four message types: ¹⁰ 

  • Health Alert: Provides time-sensitive information for a specific incident or situation that warrants immediate action or attention and conveys the highest level of importance. 
  • Health Advisory: Provides important information for a specific incident or situation and has recommendations that may not require immediate action. 
  • Health Update: Provides updated information regarding an incident or situation that is unlikely to require immediate action. 
  • Info Service: Provides public health information that is unlikely to require immediate action. 

Weapons of Mass Destruction

Weapons of mass destruction include chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or explosive weapons potentially causing mass casualties. The mnemonic CBRNE assists in remembering weapons of mass destruction: 

  • Chemical 
  • Biological 
  • Radiological 
  • Nuclear 
  • Explosives 

Chemical Weapon

A chemical weapon is any toxic chemical that can cause injury, sensory irritation, incapacitation, and death. It is usually  deployed by a delivery system, such as an artillery shell, ballistic missile, or rocket. Chemical weapons are considered weapons of mass destruction and their use in armed conflict is a violation of international law. During World War I there was widespread use of chemical weapons that often affected the civilian population resulting in many deaths. Since World War I, most countries have agreed not to use chemical and biologic weapons. Unfortunately, with our present age of terrorism from individuals, splinter groups, and dictators, there is an ever-present risk that these agents could be used. 

The main forms of  chemical weapons of mass destruction include nerve agents, blister agents, choking agents, and blood agents. These agents are categorized based on how they affect the human body. ¹ 

Nerve agents: Nerve agents are generally considered the deadliest of all of the categories of chemical weapons.  Nerve agents in liquid or gas form can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin. They block the body’s respiratory and cardiovascular functions by causing severe damage to the central nervous system. These effects can result in death. The most common nerve agents include Sarin, Soman, and VX. A full body suit is required for exposure protection.  Signs/Symptoms: Bronchial constriction, cramps, diarrhea, dyspnea, increased secretions, miosis, respiratory arrest, sweating, tremors, convulsions, paralysis, and loss of consciousness.  Treatment: Atropine every 5 to 10 minutes until secretions stop; 2-PAM CL up to 3 injections within minutes if possible.  Other: The Military Mark I kit is often available and is preloaded with 2 mg of atropine and 600 mg of 2-PAM CL. 
Blister agents: Blister agents can come in aerosol, gas, or liquid forms. Blister agents cause severe burns and blistering of the skin. They can also cause complications to the respiratory system if inhaled, and digestive tract if ingested. Common forms of blister agents include Sulfur Mustard, Nitrogen Mustard, Lewisite and Phosgene Oximine.  Signs/Symptoms: Burning, itching, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, pulmonary edema, tearing, and upper airway sloughing. Treatment: Mustard has no antidote. Lewisite – British Anti-Lewisite and supportive care. Other: Vesicants are oily reactive chemicals that combine with DNA and proteins to cause cellular changes within minutes to hours after exposure. These agents may have a garlic, onion, or mustard smell. 
Choking agents: Choking agents are chemical weapons that directly attack the body’s respiratory system.  When inhaled, choking agents can and cause respiratory failure. Common forms of choking agents include phosgene, chlorine, and chloropicrin.  Signs/Symptoms: Chest tightness, dermal irritation, laryngospasm, mucosal irritation, pulmonary edema, shortness of breath, and wheezing Treatment: Manage secretions, oxygen, intubate and treat pulmonary edema with PEEP to maintain pO2 greater than 60 mm Hg. High-dose steroids to treat pulmonary edema for nitrogen oxide. 
Blood agents: Blood agents interfere with the body’s ability to use and transfer oxygen through the blood stream. Blood agents are generally inhaled and then absorbed into the blood stream. Common forms of blood agents include Hydrogen Chloride and Cyanogen Chloride.  Signs/Symptoms: Convulsions, cyanosis, fatigue, headache, hyperventilation, hypotension, lightheadedness, loss of consciousness, metabolic acidosis, palpitations, nausea, vomiting, and death in 1 to 20 minutes. Treatment: 100% O2, sodium thiosulfate injection 12.5 g/50 mL (2 vials), sodium nitrate – 300 mg/10 mL (2 ampules), amyl nitrite inhalant 0.3 mL (12 ampules), and hydroxocobalamin 5 g. 
Riot control agents: Riot control agents, such as tear gas, are considered chemical weapons if used as a method of warfare. States can legitimately possess riot control agents and use them for domestic law enforcement purposes, but states that are members of the Chemical Weapons Convention must declare what type of riot agents they possess. 

Biological Agent

Bioterrorism is described as the intentional release of biological agents to cause illness or death in humans, animals, or crops. Symptoms of bioterrorism may not appear for days or weeks. Biological agents include bacteria, fungi, toxins, and viruses, and they may be naturally occurring or genetically-modified. Often the bacteria or virus is weaponized, and the changes will affect a broader segment of humans, animals, or crops than the normal pathogen. 

The agents are typically found in nature, but they may be altered in a laboratory to increase their resistance to antibiotics, and ability to spread in the environment. Biological and chemical agents may be spread through the air, food, or water. Terrorists use biological agents because they are often difficult to detect and the onset of illness may be delayed, increasing the spread.  

Biologic agents may be spread by several techniques including contaminated water and aerosol sprays. These agents can also infect individuals and who can unknowingly increase the spread through travel on airplanes, buses, or at large events that can quickly spread an agent of bioterrorism. 

Bioterrorism agents are a common choice for terrorists because they are inexpensive to produce, easy to disseminate, may have no known vaccine, and are easily transferable from person to cause widespread effects. The challenge with bioweapons is that they may affect friendly forces and enemies. Terrorists use biologic weapons as a method of creating mass panic.Common microbes that can be used as biological weapons include: 

Bacteria:  Bacteria are prokaryotic organisms that are capable of infecting cells and causing disease. Bacteria cause diseases such as anthrax and botulism. 
Viruses: Viruses are about 1,000 times smaller than bacteria and require a host to replicate. They are responsible for viral diseases, such as Ebola, flesh-eating disease, smallpox, and Zika disease. 
Fungi: Fungi are eukaryotic organisms that contain deadly toxins that are harmful to plants, animals, and humans. They cause diseases such as aspergillosis (caused by inhaling fungal spores), bovine foot rot, rice blast, and wheat stem rust. 
Toxins: Toxins are poisonous substances that can be extracted from plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi. Toxic substances that can be used as biological weapons include ricin and venom from snakes and spiders. 

In the history of humanity, the intentional infliction of casualties on civilians was considered inappropriate. Civilians are usually not attacked for their own sake unless they happen to be living or working in an area that has tactical or strategic value. Unfortunately, bioterrorism agents are difficult to control and affect military personnel as well as civilian men, woman, and children. 

In the last 100 years, the United States and the international community have experienced multiple acts of terrorism and bioterrorism which have targeted civilians. 

World War I: Germany launched a biological sabotage campaign in France, Romania, Russia, and the United States by infecting horses and mules with glanders, a virulent disease 

  • 1972: Two college students, Allen Schwander and Stephen Pera, were arrested for planning to poison the Chicago water supply with typhoid bacteria 
  • 1984: The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh followers in Oregon attempted to affect a local election by infecting doorknobs and salad bars in restaurants with Salmonella typhimurium bacteria 
  • 1993: Aum Shinrikyo religious group released anthrax in Tokyo 
  • 1995: Bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City 
  • 2001: Airline attack on the World Trade Center 
  • 2001: Anthrax-laced of infectious anthrax were delivered to news media offices and the US Congress 
  • 2009: Medical center attack at a Fort Hood, Texas 
  • 2014: Bombing of the Boston Marathon 
  • 2017, North Korean agents used VX, a nerve agent, to assassinate the half-brother of the North Korean leader  
  • Present: Multiple bombings worldwide 

Radiation Exposure 

Radiation exposure may involve irradiation or contamination². Contamination may be external or internal. External contamination occurs when particles are on the  skin or clothing. Some of the particles can fall or be rubbed off, which results in other people and objects being contaminated. Internal contamination is having radioactive material within the body. The material may enter the body through ingestion, inhalation, or through breaks in the skin. Once in the body, radioactive material may be transported to various sites, such as bone marrow, where it continues to emit radiation until it decays or is  removed. 

Radiation Syndrome

Acute radiation syndrome can occur because of internal radiation contamination. Radiation syndrome includes cerebrovascular syndrome, gastrointestinal syndrome, and hematopoietic syndrome.  

Cerebrovascular syndrome: The dominant manifestation of extremely high whole-body doses of radiation, is always fatal. Patients develop tremors, seizures, ataxia, and cerebral edema and usually die within hours to 1 or 2 days. 
Gastrointestinal  syndrome: The main manifestation after whole-body radiation. Symptoms develop within about 1 hour and resolve within 2 days. After4 to 5 days, gastrointestinal mucosal cells die, which is  followed by intractable nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. This led to severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalances, diminished plasma volume, and vascular collapse. Intestine necrosis may also occur, which predisposes a patient to intestinal perforation, bacteremia, and sepsis. Death from gastrointestinal syndrome is common. Survivors of gastrointestinal syndrome may have hematopoietic syndrome. 
Hematopoietic syndrome: Is also the main manifestation after whole-body radiation and consists of a generalized pancytopenia. Bone marrow stem cells are significantly depleted, but mature blood cells in circulation are largely unaffected. Circulating lymphocytes are an exception, and lymphopenia may be evident within hours to days after exposure. As the cells in circulation deteriorate and die, they are not replaced in sufficient numbers, resulting in pancytopenia. Thus, patients may remain asymptomatic up to 5 weeks after hematopoiesis begins. The risk of infections is increased because of the neutropenia and decreased antibody production. Petechiae and mucosal bleeding can result from thrombocytopenia. Anemia develops slowly, because preexisting red blood cells have a longer life span than white blood cells and platelets. Survivors have an increased incidence of radiation-induced cancer, including leukemia. 

Irradiation is exposure to radiation but not radioactive material. In this instance, no contamination occurs. Radiation exposure can occur without one being in contact with the radiation source. When the source of the radiation is removed or turned off, exposure ends. Irradiation can involve the whole body or a small part of the body which can result in local effects. People do not become radioactive following irradiation. 

Treatment of Acute Radiation Syndrome 

The following provides overall treatment for acute radiation syndrome:¹² 

Cutaneous Cutaneous radiation burns should be treated similarly to thermal burns. Severe burns may require amputations, grafts, or vasodilator therapy. 
Internal Initially lavage with fluids and charcoal to minimize absorption of radioactive materials.   Within a few hours of exposure, radioactive iodine can be used with a saturated solution of potassium iodide, a blocking agent that will decrease the uptake of the radionuclide in the thyroid. This may decrease the risk of future malignancies.   Penicillamine is a chelating agent that binds to specific radioactive metals and results in decreased tissue uptake and increased excretion.  Cesium exposure can be treated with ferric hexacyanoferrate which will decrease gastrointestinal absorption. Other agents to consider include Ca-DTPA and Zn-DTPA can be used to treat exposure to americium, curium, and plutonium. 
Large-dose Radiation Exposure Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea should be treated with fluids and electrolytes. If the exposure is high, consider antibiotics, cytokines, and blood and platelet transfusions.  If the absolute neutrophil count is less than 500 cells/mm, consider prophylactic antibiotics, including coverage of gram-negative and gram-positive anti-bacterial agents, and antiviral, antifungal, and antipseudomonal coverage. 
Hematopoietic Growth Factor Filgrastim may be considered to treat hematopoietic syndrome of acute radiation syndrome. Colony-stimulating factors have also been considered as a possible therapeutic option. 

Nuclear Weapon

A nuclear weapon is a weapon that uses nuclear fission reactions to create an explosion.¹ When a nuclearfission reaction occurs, the nucleus of a large atom is broken down into smaller ones, releasing large amounts of energy. This kind of reaction also produces neutrons, and those neutrons can cause more fission reactions. Putting enough radioactive material together creates a chain reaction, as each fission reaction causes multiple other reactions until all the material is used up.  

Inside a nuclear weapon, there is a barrier between multiple small sections of nuclear material. That barrier is suddenly removed to make a single mass large enough for a chain reaction, and that single mass is exposed to a source of neutrons to start the reaction. Nuclear weapons can destroy entire cities at once and are so reviled that only two were ever used in warfare: the two bombs the USA dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II.  

To date, other than the dropping of nuclear bombs by the United States to end World War II, there have been no recent acts of nuclear attack or nuclear terrorism. Nuclear terrorism is an act of terrorism in which a terrorist organization detonates a nuclear device. The possibility of terrorist organizations using nuclear devices is considered plausible as terrorists could acquire a nuclear weapon. However, despite thefts of small amounts of fissile material, there is no credible evidence any terrorist group has succeeded in obtaining the necessary mass amounts of weapons-grade plutonium required to make a nuclear weapon. 


The use of explosives has been the preferred terrorist technique in recent years and is often complicated by suicide bombings. Even though the number of injuries and deaths by terrorist suicide bombings is unprecedented in recent history, suicide bombings did occur in World War II during the battle in Okinawa in 1945. In recent years, the use of explosives by terrorists has unfortunately, become a common event on an international scale, when they use explosive devices to cause injury and death within  civilian populations. 

Biological Weapons 

In a biological warfare terror event, healthcare providers must deal with uncommon pathogens that rarely affect humans. Healthcare facilities will be inundated with victims. The arrival of one or more victims with an odd presentation may be the initial indication that an act of terrorism has occurred. 

All healthcare providers should have the knowledge to identify and initiate a local response to an act of bioterrorism. The starting point is the status quo or their normal patient population. If there is a significant deviation from the norm, the provider should consider the fact that they may be on the cusp of an endemic deliberately perpetrated on society. 

Providers must be aware of clinical features including:¹¹ 

  • A cluster of persons with similar symptoms from a common geographical area 
  • A rapid increase in patients presenting with similar signs and symptoms 
  • An increase in patients who expire within 72 hours after hospitalization 
  • An unusual clinical presentation 
  • Increased dead animals 
  • Signs and symptoms of biologic warfare agents 
  • Sudden increases in calls or visits 
  • Sudden increases in the use of over-the-counter drug purchases 

These factors reflect changes from the norm within a community. An astute healthcare provider with a sense of the community’s general normal health can make a significant difference in how soon a response to the threat begins. If the patient says that they have not had any recent foreign travel in areas of rare viruses and the suspicion is high, contacting the local health department or CDC must occur. 

Classification of Bioweapon Diseases

The Center for Disease Control has identified 30 organisms that might be weaponized by terrorists.⁹ The 30 organisms have been grouped into three categories based on ease of dissemination, morbidity and mortality, panic potential, and level of public health requirements. 

Category A: Highest priority diseases that pose a risk to national security, are easily transmitted, have high morbidity and mortality, would have a major public health impact, and cause panic, and require special public health preparedness. These diseases include: 
– Anthrax 
– Botulism 
– Bubonic Plague 
– Smallpox
– Tularemia 
– Viral Hemorrhagic Fever   
Category B: Moderate priority diseases with lower morbidity and mortality and more difficult to disseminate. These diseases include: 
– Abrin Toxin  
– Brucellosis 
– Epsilon Toxin 
– Food Bacterium 
– Glanders 
– Melioidosis 
– Psittacosis 
– Q Fever 
– Ricin 
– Staphylococcus
– Aureus 
– Typhus 
– Viral Encephalitis 
– Water Supply Threats   
Category C: High priority diseases that have the potential to cause significant morbidity and mortality and are emerging pathogens that could be engineered for mass dispersion. These diseases include: 
– H1N1 Influenza 
– Hantavirus 
– Nipah Virus 
– Chemical Weapons   
Category A: High Risk Biologic Agents


Anthrax is a serious infectious disease caused by gram-positive, rod-shaped bacteria known as Bacillus anthracis. Although it is rare, people can get sick with anthrax if they contact infected animals or contaminated animal products. Anthrax spores are highly permeable to the porous skin. An anthrax vaccine does exist, but it is not readily available to the public and requires many injections to be effective.  

Signs/Symptoms: Cutaneous: Pruritic macule or papule, ulceration, and eschar, edema, lymphangitis, and lymphadenopathy.   Gastrointestinal: Abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, hematemesis, and bowel perforation which may occur after eating contaminated food.  Inhalational: Cough, chest pain, dyspnea, fever, sepsis, hemorrhagic mediastinitis, ending in hemodynamic and respiratory failure.  Symptoms begin within 1 to 60 days of exposure. 
Treatment: Large early doses of intravenous and oral antibiotics for 60 days such as ciprofloxacin, doxycycline, erythromycin, penicillin, or vancomycin may be lifesaving. FDA-approved agents include ciprofloxacin, doxycycline, and penicillin. 
Biologic Warfare: Contact precautions if copious drainage.   Hand hygiene with soap and water or 2% chlorhexidine gluconate for 60 seconds.   Standard precautions as no person-to-person transmission. 

The anthrax fatality rate is approximately 20% if symptoms are left untreated. If symptoms are treated, the fatality rate is drastically reduced to approximately, 1%.  


Botulism is a neurologic disorder that causes life-threatening neuro-paralysis as a result of a neurotoxin produced by Clostridium botulinum.⁷ The three main clinical presentations of botulism are as follows: Infant botulism, Foodborne botulism, and Wound botulism. 

Signs/Symptoms: Infants and children – constipation, diminished gag reflex, weak neck muscles, lethargy, and respiratory failure.   Adults – Weak jaw clench, difficulty speaking and swallowing, drooping eyelids, descending proximal to distal muscle weakness, and respiratory failure. 
Treatment:  Supportive and antitoxin for severe symptoms. 
Biologic Warfare: The neurotoxin Botulinum is one of the deadliest toxins. It is produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum.   Passive immunity can be obtained with human hyperimmune globulin or equine botulinum antitoxin. Endogenous immunity can be obtained with botulinum toxoid.   Botulism requires standard precautions.  

Plague: Bubonic 

Bubonic plague is a highly contagious, acute,  febrile illness transmitted to humans by the bite of a rat flea. Human-to-human transmission is rare. The disease is caused by a rod-shaped bacterium known as Yersinia pestis.⁴ Bubonic plague has spread worldwide, but it is more commonly reported in developing countries. Survival of the bacillus depends on the flea-rodent interaction as human infection does not contribute to the bacteria’s survival in nature. 

Signs/Symptoms: Enlarged tender lymph nodes called buboes, fever, chills, fatigue, myalgias, hypotension, pulmonary edema, abdominal pain, and organ failure.   Symptoms may progress to septicemia, pneumonia, meningitis, ocular, or pharyngeal plague. 
Treatment: Ciprofloxacin, doxycycline, gentamycin, and streptomycin. Supportive care. 
Biologic Warfare: Yersinia pestis is a bacterium that causes the plague in humans. Rodents are the host, and the disease is transmitted by flea bites although it can be aerosolized.   The plague requires droplet precautions until antibiotics are administered for 48 to 72 hours. After 72 hours of antibiotic administration, standard precautions may be practiced.  

The plague has a high fatality rate without treatment. Historically, it caused the Black Death in medieval Europe where approximately half of Europe’s population died. Due to its high death rate and potential for aerosolization, it is considered a to have a high potential for bioterrorism.


Smallpox is a highly contagious acute disease caused by the variola virus, an Orthopoxvirus in the Poxviridae family.¹⁴ 

Signs/Symptoms: Fever, myalgia, vesicular rash on the face and extremities developing over 2-4 days. 
Treatment: Supportive therapy including fluids and antibiotics for secondary infection. Vaccination within 2 to 5 days of exposure will decrease the incidence of the disease and decrease the incidence of death. 
Biologic Warfare: Smallpox is very contagious. Those infected need to be quarantined, and airborne and droplet precautions until scabs have separated at 3 to 4 weeks.  

The fatality rate of smallpox is 20% to 40%. According to the World Health Organization, smallpox was eradicated in 1980. As a weapon smallpox is particularly dangerous because it is highly contagious. Due to the infrequency with which vaccines are administered most people are unprotected in the event of an outbreak. 

Tularemia or “Rabbit Fever” 

Tularemia or rabbit fever is caused by Francisella tularensis which is a bacteria spread by ticks, deer flies, or contact with infected animals. It may be also be spread by breathing contaminated dust or drinking contaminated water.² 

Signs/Symptoms: Fever, severe, life-threatening pneumonia, and systemic infection. 
Treatment: Tularemia is difficult to diagnose and can easily be mistaken for other, more common, illnesses. Blood tests and cultures can help confirm the diagnosis.   Antibiotics used to treat tularemia include streptomycin, gentamicin, doxycycline, or ciprofloxacin. Streptomycin is the drug of choice and the treatment usually lasts 10 to 21 days.   Gentamicin is considered an acceptable alternative, and Tetracyclines are an alternative to aminoglycosides for patients who are not severely ill. Tetracyclines are static agents and should be given for at least 14 days to avoid relapse.   Ciprofloxacin and other fluoroquinolones are not FDA-approved for treatment of tularemia but have shown good efficacy. 
Biologic Warfare:  The disease is caused by the Francisella tularensis bacterium through contact with insect bites, fur, inhalation, or ingestion of contaminated. If weaponized, the bacteria would likely be made airborne for inhalation infection. 

Tularemia has a low fatality rate, if treated.  

Viral Hemorrhagic Fever  

Viral hemorrhagic fevers are caused by a viral infection. They are caused by five families of ribonucleic acid viruses: namely Arenaviridae, Bunyaviridae, Filoviridae, Flaviviridae, and Rhabdoviridae. Fever and bleeding disorders characterize all types of viral hemorrhagic fevers and all can progress to high fever, shock, and death.³ 

Signs/Symptoms: Fever and bleeding, facial and chest flushing, petechiae, edema, hypotension, malaise, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, headache, which progresses to multiple organ failure and hypovolemic shock in the form of bleeding diathesis and circulatory compromise. 
Treatment: No cure exists, treatment is supportive. 
Biologic Warfare: Ebola virus is the most dangerous of the viral hemorrhagic fevers. The viruses are spread to humans through a respiratory route, and there is a potential for weaponization and aerosol dissemination. 

Fatality rates of viral hemorrhagic fevers range from 25% to 90%. 

Category B: Low Risk Biologic Agents

Abrin Toxin  

Abrin is a toxic toxalbumin that is found in the seeds of the rosary pea Abrus precatorius.⁹ Abrin is a ribosome inhibiting protein similar to the ricin, however it is more toxic than ricin. 

Signs/Symptoms: The major symptoms depend on the route of exposure and the dose. Initial symptoms of inhalation may occur within 8 to 24 hours and may be fatal within 36 to 72 hours. Symptoms include a cough, fever, mouth pain, airway irritation, chest tightness, diaphoresis, pulmonary edema, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, cyanosis, gastrointestinal bleeding, hematuria, and respiratory failure. Abrin as a powder or mist can cause eye redness, lacrimation, retinal hemorrhage, vision impairment, blindness, and lead to systemic toxicity. 
Treatment: Supportive therapy including oxygen therapy, airway management, assisted ventilation, monitoring, intravenous fluids, and electrolyte replacement. For recent ingestion, administration of activated charcoal and gastric lavage are both options. Flushing the eye with saline helps to remove abrin. There is no antidote to abrin. 
Biologic Warfare: Abrin is a ribosome inhibiting toxic protein toxalbumin found in the seeds of the rosary pea or jequirity pea. It is approximately 30 times more toxic than ricin and has a potential to be weaponized.   


Brucellosis is a very contagious zoonosis that may be contracted by consumption of undercooked meat, unpasteurized milk, or contact with other secretions. It is also known as Mediterranean fever, Malta fever, or Undulant fever. Brucella is small gram-negative, nonmotile, non-spore-forming, rod-shaped coccobacilli bacteria. It is a facultative intracellular parasite resulting in chronic disease. 

Signs/Symptoms: Fever, sweating, arthralgia, myalgia, muscular pain, night sweats, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, decreased appetite, weight loss, abdominal pain, constipation, an enlarged liver, liver inflammation, liver abscess, and an enlarged spleen. The duration of the disease may last from a few weeks to years.   Blood tests reveal a low red blood cell and white blood cell count, elevation of liver enzymes such as aspartate aminotransferase and alanine aminotransferase and demonstrate positive Bengal Rose and Huddleston reactions.   Brucella infection may cause arthritis, spondylitis, thrombocytopenia, meningitis, uveitis, optic neuritis, endocarditis, and neurobrucellosis. 
Treatment: Tetracycline, rifampin, streptomycin, and gentamicin are effective if given for several weeks as bacteria can incubate within cells. Multiple antibiotics may be necessary.   The gold standard treatment is streptomycin 1 g for 14 days and oral doxycycline 100 mg twice daily for 45 days. Another regimen is doxycycline plus rifampin twice daily for 6 weeks. A triple therapy of doxycycline, with rifampin and co-trimoxazole, has been used successfully to treat neurobrucellosis. 
Biologic Warfare: In endemic areas, vaccination is used to reduce the incidence of infection. Brucella has been weaponized by several countries. 

Epsilon Toxin  

Epsilon toxin is produced by Clostridium perfringens types B and D and is one of the most potent poisonous substances known.⁹ Epsilon toxin binds to endothelial cells of brain capillary vessels before passing through the blood-brain barrier. 

Signs/Symptoms: In 6 to 24 hours, Epsilon toxin would quickly cause devasting neurologic signs and symptoms and might result in sudden death. If weaponized, it would probably be dispersed by aerosolizing. 
Treatment: There has been little progress toward the assembly of a good human immunogen against C. perfringens or any type of anti-toxin. 
Biologic Warfare: C. perfringens epsilon toxin could be a fatal bioterrorism weapon. If used effectively, this agent might cause important morbidity and mortality because no prophylactic measures would be accessible to the general public.   

Food Bacterium  

The foodborne disease usually results from food contaminated by pathogenic bacteria, viruses, parasites, or toxins such those found in poisonous mushrooms. The incubation period ranges from hours to days depending on the agent and the amount of consumption. 

Signs/Symptoms: Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramping, and severe dehydration. 
Treatment: Supportive therapy with antibiotics for severe cases. 
Biologic Warfare: Infections created from consumed food have been a time-honored method of assassination, siege, and terrorism. Food is a natural vehicle for pathogenic microbes and toxins, and as a result the food system is easily vulnerable to manipulation and contamination by terrorists.   Food-borne pathogens are a “natural” weapons. Using organisms as weapons require the opportunity to insert them into the food system so that they will be viable and virulent. All it takes to make food into a weapon is basic microbiologic information and access to soil, manure, and untreated water.   Contamination of food and water can occur for select target populations. Bioterrorists would be able to disrupt the life of localities by contaminating water supplies or food.  An outbreak of diarrheal disease could shut down schools, a police force, fire departments, an aircraft carrier, or a military base.   Schools and military bases with centralized kitchens are a prime target for a food bioterrorism.  Schools are such a public concern that any hostile act against them can destroy a community.  


Glanders is an infectious disease that usually affects donkeys, horses, and mules; however, it can also be contracted by cats, dogs, goats, and humans. It is caused by Burkholderia mallei from contaminated feed or water.⁹ 

Signs/Symptoms: The incubation period is 1 to 14 days. Glanders may cause septicemia, pulmonary infection, and localized infection, nodules, and abscesses with ulcers in the mucous membranes, and lymphangitis with suppuration.   One should also expect fever, chills, sweats, malaise, headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, myalgia, pustular rash, cellulitis, cyanosis, jaundice, photophobia, and tachycardia.   Hepatomegaly and splenomegaly may develop. Disseminated infections often progress to septicemia and multi-organ failure. Death can occur rapidly. 
Treatment: Standard precautions should be used to prevent transmission.   Oral amoxicillin/clavulanate, doxycycline, or trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole may be used for 30 to 150 days depending on the degree of the infection. streptomycin may be added when initiating treatment if the plague cannot be excluded. 
Biologic Warfare: Due to the high mortality rate it is regarded as a potential biological warfare agent.   


Melioidosis is an infection caused by gram-negative Burkholderia pseudomallei found in the soil and water. It is phylogenetically related closely to Burkholderia mallei which causes glanders.⁹  

Signs/Symptoms: In acute melioidosis, the incubation period is 1 to 21 days, but symptoms may not present for decades. It is known as the “Vietnam time-bomb.” There are 4 general types of infection; Blood-borne, Disseminated, Localized, and Pulmonary.  Patients typically present with fever, cough pleuritic chest pain, or bone or joint pain with cellulitis.   Intra-abdominal liver, splenic, or prostatic abscesses do not usually have focal pain, and as a result, ultrasound or computed tomography should be performed. B. pseudomallei abscesses may have a characteristic “honeycomb” or “swiss cheese” architecture on CT. Parotid abscesses characteristically occur in Thai children, and prostatic abscesses are found in Australian males.   Risk factors include diabetes, thalassemia, alcohol use, or renal disease. Chronic melioidosis occurs when symptoms last greater than 2 months.   The clinical presentation of chronic melioidosis includes chronic skin infections, chronic lung nodule, and pneumonia. Chronic melioidosis closely mimics tuberculosis. 
Treatment: Initially intravenous ceftazidime should be administered 10 to 14 days. Meropenem, imipenem, and cefoperazone-sulbactam combination are also active in treating Melioidosis. Intravenous amoxicillin-clavulanate may be used if none of the above four drugs are available.   Eradication or maintenance treatment with co-trimoxazole and doxycycline is recommended for 12 to 20 weeks to reduce the rate of recurrence. Co-amoxiclav is an alternative for those unable to take co-trimoxazole and doxycycline, but it is not as effective.   Surgical drainage is usually indicated for prostatic and parotid abscesses and septic arthritis. 
Biologic Warfare: Melioidosis has the potential to be developed as a biological weapon. Without antibiotics, the mortality rate of the septicemic form exceeds 90%. With appropriate antibiotics, the mortality rate is about 10% for uncomplicated cases but up to 80% for cases with sepsis. 


Psittacosis, parrot fever, or ornithosis is caused by Chlamydia psittaci and contracted from infected parrots.⁹ 

Signs/Symptoms: The incubation period is 5-19 days. Psittacosis usually presents as atypical pneumonia with high fevers, cough, headache with nuchal rigidity, joint pains, diarrhea, conjunctivitis, nose bleeds, and low level of white blood cells.   Rose spots (Horder’s spots) may develop.   Splenomegaly is common towards the end of the first week. Psittacosis should be suspected if a respiratory infection is present and is associated with splenomegaly and/or epistaxis. 
Treatment: The infection is treated with tetracycline or chloramphenicol. For the initial treatment of ill patients, doxycycline may be administered intravenously.   Remission is usually evident within 48 to 72 hours, but treatment must continue for at least 10 to 14 days after fever subsides. 
Biologic Warfare:  Psittacosis has been considered as a possible biologic weapon. 

Q Fever  

Coxiella burnetii causes Q fever. The bacteria are found in cattle, goats, sheep, cats, and dogs. Infection occurs from inhalation from a spore-like variants and contact with feces, milk, semen, and urine of infected animals. The bacterium is an obligate intracellular parasite.⁹ 

Signs/Symptoms: The incubation period is usually 2 to 3 weeks. One can expect flu-like symptoms with fever, malaise, perspiration, headache, muscle pain, joint pain, loss of appetite, upper respiratory problems, dry cough, pleuritic pain, chills, confusion, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.   Q Fever may progress to atypical pneumonia with life-threatening acute respiratory distress syndrome. It may cause granulomatous hepatitis, which may be asymptomatic or cause liver enlargement and pain in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen. Retinal vasculitis is a rare manifestation. The chronic form can cause endocarditis months to years later. 
Treatment: Antibiotics include doxycycline, tetracycline, chloramphenicol, ciprofloxacin, ofloxacin, and hydroxychloroquine. Chronic Q fever may require up to four years of treatment with doxycycline and quinolones or doxycycline with hydroxychloroquine. 
Biologic Warfare: C. burnetii has been developed as a biological weapon. It can be contagious and is stable in aerosols in a wide range of temperatures. Q fever microorganisms may survive on surfaces up to 60 days.  


Ricin is a toxic lectin produced by the castor oil plant and found in the seeds. A dose the size of a few grains of table salt can kill a human. Injection or inhalation is more toxic than oral ingestion. 

Signs/Symptoms: Ricin is toxic if inhaled, injected, or ingested. It causes abdominal pain, coughing, diarrhea, fever, nausea, necrotizing pneumonia, pulmonary edema, shock, tracheobronchitis, vomiting, and weakness. 
Treatment: Charcoal lavage and supportive care. 
Biologic Warfare: Several countries have attempted to weaponize ricin. Given ricin’s extreme toxicity it is noteworthy that the production of the toxin is rather difficult to limit. The castor bean plant from which ricin is derived is a common plant and can be grown at home without any special care. 

Staphylococcus Aureus  

Staphylococcus aureus is a gram-positive bacterium frequently found in the flora of the nose, respiratory tract, and skin. It is a common cause of abscesses, food poisoning, respiratory infections, and sinusitis. Pathogenic strains produce virulence factors such as protein toxins and cell-surface protein that binds and inactivates antibodies. Antibiotic-resistant methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA) is a worldwide problem. 

Signs/Symptoms: Enterotoxin produced by the gram-positive Staphylococcus aureus causes severe nausea, intestinal cramping, and diarrhea within a few hours of ingestion.   Gastroenteritis occurs because it is a superantigen which causes the immune system to release large cytokines that lead to significant inflammation. This inflammation results in  toxic shock syndrome with high fever, hypotension, dizziness, rash, and peeling skin. 
Treatment: Supportive therapy should be provided with antibiotics such as oxacillin, cefazolin, clindamycin, vancomycin, or linezolid. 
Biologic Warfare: It is possible enterotoxin type B could be weaponized. 


Typhus, also known as typhus fever, is caused by Rickettsia prowazekii which is spread by body lice and Orientia tsutsugamushi,  chiggers, and Murine typhus, due to Rickettsia typhi spread by fleas. 

Signs/Symptoms: Sudden onset of fever with flu-like symptoms about 1 to 2 weeks after being infected. Once the symptoms have started, five to nine days later a rash typically begins on the trunk and spreads to the extremities sparing the face, palms, and soles.   Signs of meningoencephalitis begin with the rash and continue with the development of photophobia, delirium, or coma. Untreated cases are often fatal. 
Treatment: Without treatment, death may occur in 10% to 60% of patients with epidemic typhus, with patients over age 60 having the highest risk of death. Death is rare if doxycycline and supportive care are provided. 
Biologic Warfare: Rickettsia prowazekii is highly infectious, but it cannot be passed from person to person. Numerous countries have considered it as a potential biological weapon. 

Viral Encephalitis  

Encephalitis is an acute inflammation of the brain caused by either a viral infection or the immune system mistakenly attacking brain tissue. Encephalitis refers to an acute, diffuse, inflammatory process. While meningitis is an infection of the meninges, a combined meningoencephalitis can occur. An infection by a virus is the most common cause of encephalitis. 

Signs/Symptoms: Typically, mosquito-borne viral pathogens cause progressive central nervous system disorders.   Patients experience flu-like symptoms such as high fevers and headaches. People with weakened immune systems, the young, and old can become severely ill and die.   Diagnosing encephalitis is challenging because many of the symptoms are shared with other illnesses. Confirmations may require a sample of cerebral spinal fluid or brain tissue although computerized tomography and magnetic resonance imaging scans are used to detect encephalitis. 
Treatment:  Supportive 
Biologic Warfare:  Many countries have considered weaponizing these viruses. 

Water Supply Threats  

The water supply and water treatment facilities are a possible target for terrorists. 

Signs/Symptoms: Ingestion of water born agents typically leads to nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. 
Treatment: Depends on the pathogen. Most are supportive, but antibiotics may shorten the course. 
Biologic Warfare: Agents released into the water supply are a potential biologic weapon. 
Category C: Emerging Biologic Agents

Category C agents are emerging pathogens that could be engineered for mass destruction because of their availability, ease of production and dissemination, mortality rate, and ability to cause a substantial health impact.⁹ 

H1N1 Influenza 

Influenza A (H1N1) virus is a subtype of influenza A and a common cause of the human flu. It is an orthomyxovirus that contains haemagglutinin and neuraminidase. Haemagglutinin causes red blood cells to clump together. Neuraminidase is a glycoside hydrolase enzyme that moves the virus particles through the infected cell. 

Signs/Symptoms: Influenza-like illness with chills, fever, sore throat, muscle pains, headache, cough, weakness, and general discomfort. The recommended time of isolation is five days. 
Treatment: Supportive. 
Biologic Warfare: Due to high virulence and rapid distribution in the community it is possible it could be weaponized. 


Hantaviruses or orthohantaviruses are single-stranded, enveloped, negative-sense ribonucleic acid viruses within the Hantaviridae family of the order of Bunyavirales.⁹ These viruses have the potential to kill humans. Humans become infected from contact with rodent feces, saliva, or urine. 

Signs/Symptoms: Hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome is caused hantaviruses. In hantavirus-induced hemorrhagic fever, the incubation time is 2 to 4 weeks. The severity of symptoms depends on the viral load. Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome is an often-fatal pulmonary disease. Prodromal symptoms include flu-like symptoms such as fever, cough, muscle pain, headache, and lethargy. It is characterized by shortness of breath with rapidly evolving pulmonary edema that is often fatal despite mechanical ventilation. 
Treatment: Supportive therapy with oxygen and mechanical ventilation during the acute pulmonary stage. Administration of human neutralizing antibodies during acute phases of Hantavirus might also prove effective. 
Biologic Warfare: Hantavirus hemorrhagic fever has not been shown to transfer from person to person. Transmission is by aerosolized rodent excreta to humans, and in the hospital setting transmission would be unlikely with universal precautions. It is possible it could be weaponized. 


Human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immune deficiency syndrome are conditions caused by infection with human immunodeficiency virus. 

Signs/Symptoms: Acute seroconversion manifests as a flu-like illness, with fever, malaise, and a generalized rash. The asymptomatic phase is generally benign. Generalized lymphadenopathy is common and may be a presenting symptom. 
Treatment: Depends on the stage of the disease and any concomitant opportunistic infections. In general, the goal of treatment is to prevent the immune system from deteriorating using antiretroviral therapy. In addition, prophylaxis for specific opportunistic infections is indicated. 

Nipah Virus 

Nipah virus (NiV) infection is a zoonosis that causes severe disease in humans. The natural host of the virus is the fruit bats of the Pteropodidae family, Pteropus genus.⁹ Human-to-human transmission has also been documented. NiV infection in humans has a range of clinical presentations, from asymptomatic infection to acute respiratory syndrome and encephalitis. 

Signs/Symptoms: Cough, fever, headache, drowsiness, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, weakness, difficulty swallowing, blurred vision, seizures, and about 60% become comatose and need mechanical ventilation. Patients with severe disease may develop hypertension, tachycardia, and a very high temperature. 
Treatment: Supportive measures as there is no definitive treatment. Ribavirin may help. 
Biologic Weapon: Transmission may be human-to-human transmission. The reservoir is Pteropid fruit bats, Pteropus vampyrus (Large Flying Fox), and Pteropus hypomelanus (Small flying fox), found in Malaysia. The transmission of Nipah virus from flying foxes to pigs is thought to be due to increasing overlap between bat habitats and pig farms. It is possible it could be weaponized.   

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a zoonotic viral respiratory disease caused by the SARS coronavirus. 

Signs/Symptoms: High fever, body aches, diarrhea, and dry cough. Often progresses to pneumonia. 
Treatment: Supportive care with oxygen and ventilation. Antiviral medications and steroids may reduce lung swelling. 
Biologic Weapon: Spread is by close person-to-person contact. The virus that causes SARS is thought to be transmitted by respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Due to its high infectivity, it is possible it could be weaponized.   
Emergency Services Preparation

When a bioterrorism attack is suspected, prehospital and hospital personal should be in communication and prepared for the anticipated surge capacity in patients requiring treatment. The inclusion of all local hospitals is essential in contingency plans as the number of severely injured patients may be overwhelming.¹¹   

In considering the command structure, one must consider the inclusion of a Law Enforcement Medical Coordinator (LEMC), who is a tactical medical officer and understands both tactical and emergency medical services (EMS) issues. The LEMC would be involved in any operational input and would serve as a liaison with EMS and the fire department.  

The area around the terrorist attack would have to be sectioned off into an inner danger zone, a hot zone (non-permissive zone), warm zone (semi-permissive zone), and an outer cold zone (permissive zone) where the casualty clearing station is placed. The warm or cold zones are typically where triage occurs. 

Security is essential at the scene of the event. Health responders must verify with police or security services that the site is safe before they enter a scene and begin resuscitation and rescue efforts. Usually, law enforcement personnel such as SWAT paramedics will enter the inner danger zone, however if they find a victim, they should only perform basic life-saving procedures such as massive hemorrhage control, opening the airway, and rapid evacuation. They need to be mobile and therefore do not carry enough equipment for sustained care for large numbers of casualties. Any casualties should be placed in a cold zone; a location outside of the area that may be threatened by the terrorist or potential bomb. The cold zone is a safe area and includes the ability to administer resuscitation or advanced analgesia and perform other procedures. The warm zone: a semi-permissive environment, is in a spectrum between the non-permissive and permissive areas. In this area, the immediate threat is no longer active. If this is due to CBRN, then proper personal protective equipment (PPE) is required.  

Protocols were created  for first responders to terrorist mass casualty incidents. These include¹¹: 

  • 3 Echo Protocol- Enter, Evaluate, and Evacuate, which emphasizes early identification of casualties, usually by law enforcement and early treatment of life-threatening hemorrhage, and safe evacuation.  
  • THREAT acronym- Threat suppression, Hemorrhage control, Rapid Extrication, Assessment, and Transport.  
  • Emergency Medical Services (EMS) receive instruction in S-C-ABC-format, where S – safety first, C-catastrophic hemorrhage, and then the ABCs; airway, breathing, and circulation. 

First Responder Practices 


  • Various field triage strategies exist. These include:  
    • START (Simple Triage and Rapid Treatment: the ability to obey commands, assess respiratory rate, and radial pulse or capillary refill) 
    • SALT (Sort, Assess, Life-Saving Interventions, Treatment, and/or Transport) 
    • Triage Sieve and Sort (using respiratory rate and either capillary refill or heart rate) 
    • Care Flight Triage (ability to obey commands, the presence of respiration, and being able to palpate a radial pulse).  

Implementation of one of these protocols is essential. The most severely injured patients are usually taken to the closest level one trauma centers. However, other considerations such as the large numbers of casualties or severity of life-threatening injury may result in patient transport to the nearest medical centers for emergency treatment and stabilization. Some patients will then undergo secondary transfer to a level one trauma center.  

Catastrophic Hemorrhage 

Direct pressure with bandages to the injury is the initial protocol. Tourniquets should be applied to the extremities when required due to life-threatening arterial bleeding. The emergency services responder can also use hemostatic agents to areas such as the axilla and groin. Elevating and splinting of affected limbs is crucial. If the pelvis is unstable then using a sheet as a binder may be necessary.  

Chemical Terrorism 

The emergency responder must don appropriate protective gear when use of a chemical agent is suspected in terrorism. The personal protective equipment ranges from Level A, which consists of a chemically resistant suit and full-face self-contained breathing apparatus to Level D, which consists of overalls and no respiratory protection.  It is notable that some experts advocate the decontamination of all toxicological mass casualty victims at the hospital. While in protective gear, the emergency services provider can undress the victim in the ambulance and then proper decontamination can be done at the hospital.  

Biological Terrorism 

Depending on the type of agent, precautions need to be taken by emergency services personnel. These range from contact and airborne precautions to the need for N95 protective respirators. The patient may have to be isolated from other patients both pre-hospital as well as in the hospital. The emergency services provider may require pre-exposure and post-exposure prophylaxis for bioterrorism agents.  

Radiological and nuclear terrorism 

Management of a radiological disaster must be with personal protective equipment that includes masks, eye protection, gowns, gloves, and boots. There will also be a hot zone, a warm zone (buffer zone), and cold zone. The victims should be evaluated with a Geiger counter to identify their contamination level with radioactive material. If contaminated, they should undergo decontamination. Clothes should be removed and double bagged. External decontamination should be completed by washing the face and body with soap and water. Internal decontamination may later be necessary.  

Stress Response 

Terrorist attacks can be as emotionally intense as any other major mass casualty event; emergency service providers frequently suffer from at least short-term post-traumatic stress. Counseling for critical incident stress is a recommended strategy. Empathetic care must begin from the time the patient arrives in the emergency department and continue throughout the process of their medical care. To prevent depression and PTSD, disaster preparedness training, critical incident stress debriefing, and shift work in prolonged responses are helpful. 


Local health authorities, including emergency services, should examine their preparedness repeatedly for a potential bioterrorist attack and routinely review coordination issues with agencies that take place in response. Programs aimed to coordinate and direct emergency preparedness and responses of the emergency service personnel including anti-bioterrorism efforts should be practiced. When a public health emergency is identified, all healthcare providers must be adequately prepared to care for potential victims. This begins in the prehospital setting where decontamination and treatment is initiated and continues upon arrival to the hospital setting. The treatment regimen should coincide with the suspected weapon as evidenced by the patients’ signs and symptoms. It is important for each provider to acquire the information and skills needed to respond appropriately to a terrorist attack, and to limit to the morbidity and mortality associated with the weapon of mass destruction used.

  1. Aven, T., & Guikema, S. (2015). On the concept and definition of terrorism risk. Risk Analysis, 35(12), 2162-2171. https://doi.org/10.1111/risa.12518 
  2. Barras, V., & Greub, G. (2014). History of biological warfare and bioterrorism. Clinical Microbiology and Infection, 20(6), 497-502. https://doi.org/10.1111/1469-0691.12706 
  3. Cenciarelli, O., Gabbarini, V., Pietropaoli, S., Malizia, A., Tamburrini, A., Ludovici, G. M., Carestia, M., Di Giovanni, D., Sassolini, A., Palombi, L., Bellecci, C., & Gaudio, P. (2015). Viral bioterrorism: Learning the lesson of Ebola virus in West Africa 2013–2015. Virus Research, 210, 318-326. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.virusres.2015.09.002 
  4. Chemical weapons: Frequently asked questions. (n.d.). Arms Control Association | The authoritative source on arms control since 1971. https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Chemical-Weapons-Frequently-Asked-Questions#I 
  5. Edwards, D. S., Barnett-Vanes, A., Narayan, N., & Patel, H. D. (2016). Prophylaxis for blood-borne diseases during the London 7/7 mass casualty terrorist bombing: A review and the role of bioethics. Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps, 162(5), 330-334. https://doi.org/10.1136/jramc-2015-000546 
  6. Greaves, I., & Byers, M. (2006). Respiratory protection for health care workers. Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps, 152(4), 225-230. https://doi.org/10.1136/jramc-152-04-06 
  7. Joseph, B., Brown, C. V., Diven, C., Bui, E., Aziz, H., & Rhee, P. (2013). Current concepts in the management of biologic and chemical warfare causalities. Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, 75(4), 582-589. https://doi.org/10.1097/ta.0b013e3182a11175 
  8. Kotora, J. G. (2015). An assessment of chemical, biological, radiologic, nuclear, and explosive preparedness among emergency department healthcare providers in an inner city emergency department. Journal of Emergency Management, 13(5), 431. https://doi.org/10.5055/jem.2015.0253 
  9. Moran, G. J. (2002). Threats in bioterrorism II: CDC category B and C agents. Emergency Medicine Clinics of North America, 20(2), 311-330. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0733-8627(01)00003-7 
  10. NVHAN home. (2020, March 3). https://dpbh.nv.gov/Programs/NVHAN/NVHAN_-_Home/ 
  11. Public health emergency response Guide|Preparation & planning. (2019, March 21). Emergency Preparedness and Response | CDC. https://emergency.cdc.gov/planning/responseguide.asp 
  12. Radiation exposure and contamination – Injuries; Poisoning – Merck manuals professional edition. (n.d.). Merck Manuals Professional Edition. https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/injuries-poisoning/radiation-exposure-and-contamination/radiation-exposure-and-contamination 
  13. Syndromic surveillance and bioterrorism-related epidemics. (2011, January 10). Emerging Infectious Diseases journal. https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/9/10/03-0231_article 
  14. Voigt, E. A., Kennedy, R. B., & Poland, G. A. (2016). Defending against smallpox: A focus on vaccines. Expert Review of Vaccines, 15(9), 1197-1211. https://doi.org/10.1080/14760584.2016.1175305 
Bioterrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction Evaluation

To access these Fast Facts, purchase this course or a Full Access Pass.
If you already have an account, please sign in here.

Bioterrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction Posttest

To access these Fast Facts, purchase this course or a Full Access Pass.
If you already have an account, please sign in here.

View Other CE Courses

Choose Your State


Not Ready to Enroll yet?

Start with 100% Free Nursing CEU Courses

Click on the following button to gain instant access to your 100% FREE – no obligation – Nursing CEU Courses Today: