If a biological agent is ever released, it could take days for symptoms to develop and for the biological agent to be identified. During that time, many infected people would be unwittingly passing the infection on to others.
This is what makes bioterrorism so frightening. Currently, hospitals and government health departments are on high alert for any unusual disease outbreaks nationwide, but the outbreak -- if there is one -- would always have a lead on those called upon to identify and then treat it.
PKIDs (Parents of Kids with Infectious Diseases) and medical and public health specialists have now made recommendations to curtail the spread of infectious diseases that could result from natural or terrorist activities.
(Editor's Note: PKIDS, a website dealing with infectious diseases in children and how they can be prevented and treated, is a member of The Allied Vaccine Group, of which The Vaccine Page, published by UniSci, is also a member.)
If or when a terrorist-inspired epidemic occurs, parents should react the same way they would if there were a sudden, severe outbreak of influenza or some other disease in their local community, PKIDS says.
* First, find out if a vaccine is available that can prevent the disease. Immunizations have been the most important weapon in preventing infectious disease.
Currently, the federal government plans no widespread use or distribution of anthrax or smallpox vaccines, but that policy is under constant review by the U.S. Public Health Service Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) and by the American Academy of Pediatrics Committees on Infectious Diseases and Environmental Health.
* Second, parents can try to limit their and their children’s exposure to infected individuals and they can prepare for a possible quarantine within their homes.
Here are some guidelines for such a scenario from public health specialists at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies.
Prepare as if a hurricane or blizzard was coming. Every home should have a supply of water, flashlights and food. In the event of an epidemic, a government-mandated quarantine or home stay could range from one to three weeks. Access to grocery and drug stores might be limited during that time.
Government bioterrorism preparation simulations have found one of the best ways to contain an outbreak and prevent the spread of an infectious agent through person-to-person contact is to keep everyone at home.
Keep the phone numbers of local hospitals and city, county or state public health departments in a prominent place. Public health departments will be monitoring disease outbreaks and will make recommendations about what precautions families should take.
Health departments and other government agencies will decide whether to recommend that children stay home from school. They will also advise families where to go for immunizations or for antibiotics.
If parents are particularly anxious about what to do in the event of an epidemic, they should talk to their child’s physician now about any concerns they have and find out how well-informed the physician is.
Parents should do what they can to prevent the spread of infectious disease, no matter what the cause. If children are ill, don’t send them to school and spread the infection. If parents are ill, they should stay home.
Dr. Luciana Borio, a fellow at Johns Hopkins University Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies and a critical care medicine fellow at the National Institutes of Health, also recommends that families keep a first aid kit with antiseptic, bandages, anti-diarrhea medication and over-the-counter pain killers.
Parents should also keep a card with all their children's key medical information, such as medication schedule and food or drug allergies. “If a parent becomes ill, they want to make sure their children are taken care of appropriately,” Dr. Borio added.
Don't stockpile antibiotics, said Dr. Borio. Of the five top suspected biologic agents that would cause widespread disease, three (anthrax, plague and tularemia) could be treated with antibiotics. But don't call the family doctor for a prescription.
Antibiotics quickly expire, dosages vary and the timing of when to take antibiotics and for how long varies depending on the biological agent used in an attack. For instance, in the case of anthrax, antibiotics must be administered before symptoms appear, while in the case of plague, antibiotic treatment must continue for seven days following last exposure.
The federal government already has a stockpile of antibiotics that will be deployed to infected areas in the event of an attack.
PKIDs (Parents of Kids with Infectious Diseases)
Johns Hopkins University Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies
National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's BioTerrorism Preparedness and Response
American Academy of Pediatrics Response to Questions about the Anthrax and Smallpox Vaccines
The Allied Vaccine Group