Frequently Asked Questions
What is meningitis, and how can I protect myself?
Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes that enclose the brain and spinal cord, caused by viruses or bacteria that enter through the bloodstream from other parts of the body.
Bacterial meningitis, while comparatively rare, is the most dangerous. It causes inflammation and swelling that can result in hearing loss, brain damage, and even death.
Treatment of bacterial meningitis requires antibiotics as well as medications to reduce swelling in the brain. Research shows that persons under age 5, age 16-25 and over age 55 are most likely to contract the disease. In older children and adults the most common symptoms are vomiting, high temperature, severe headaches, neck stiffness, drowsiness, and joint pain. In infants, symptoms include fever with hands and feet feeling cold, vomiting, refusing feeds, high pitched crying, a dislike of handling, neck retraction, a staring expression, difficulty in waking and a pale or blotchy complexion.
A key symptom is purple rash marks that do not turn white when pressed. A vaccine has been developed for one type of bacterial meningitis, and research efforts are continuing against other strains.
What is anthrax, and how can I protect myself?
Anthrax is an infectious bacterial disease spread by contact with infected animals, handling infected products, eating infected meat, or breathing weapon-dispersed anthrax spores. Anthrax is also relatively easy to develop as a biological weapon, as it can be spread in the air over a large area.
The incubation period is 1 to 6 days between exposure and symptoms, which may include fever, fatigue, cough and mild chest discomfort followed by severe difficulty breathing.
Anthrax can be treated with antibiotics when it is diagnosed in its early stages. An effective vaccine against anthrax has been available since 1970, and is now mandated for use by U.S. military personnel. Because supplies are limited, there is no vaccine now available for civilian use.
What is botulism, and how can I protect myself?
Botulism (Botulinum toxin) is one of the most poisonous substances known to man. It is absorbed into the circulation system from breathing or through a wound, and leads to muscle paralysis. When contracted through infected food, the incubation period can be from two hours to eight days.
Symptoms include nausea and vomiting followed by difficulty in speaking, seeing or swallowing. The severity of illness depends on the amount of toxin absorbed. A botulinum antitoxin is available from the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) through state and local health departments.
What is plague, and how can I protect myself?
Plague is a disease caused by the bacteria Y pestis that causes millions of deaths in epidemic cycles during the Middle Ages. Since then, advances in living conditions, public health and antibiotic therapy have reduced the threat of plague, with the exception of the use of airborne plague bacteria as a potential biological weapon.
The incubation period for airborne Y pestis is believed to be one to six days. Symptoms include high fever, chills and possible development of pustules on the body. Research is underway on a vaccine that would protect against airborne plague.
What is smallpox, and how can I protect myself?
Since 1980, smallpox has been eradicated from its natural environment worldwide. However, some nations still possess stores of smallpox virus that could be used as a biological weapon. Vaccination in the United States ended in 1972, and immunity acquired before that time is believed to have waned.
Smallpox spreads directly from person to person through coughs or sneezes, as well as contaminated clothing or bed linen. There is an average incubation period of 12 to 14 days before symptoms occur. First, a high fever, fatigue, headache and backache develops, followed by a rash on the mouth, face and forearms, spreading to the rest of the body. Previously prepared vaccines against smallpox are kept in storage at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.