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Panic -- The Real Enemy

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Gas masks or respirators won't do much good once an exposure has taken place -- and it's much more likely that you or your children would be injured by improper use of gas masks than by a terrorist attack.

The only reason to begin taking antibiotics for anthrax is if authorities say you might have been exposed to the germ. Nose-swab tests, like those given to workers in the NBC building and in Congress, are only a way to track a potential epidemic. They cannot rule out anthrax exposure. A person who tests negative might still have been exposed. "There is no lab test for anthrax exposure," Gerberding says.

Only preventive treatment with antibiotics can keep an exposed person from developing anthrax. To prevent disease, these drugs must be taken after an exposure. In the absence of a suspected exposure, these medicines are more likely to do harm than good. Anthrax vaccine -- a series of six shots over the course of a year, with yearly booster shots -- is not recommended for, or available to, the public. New treatments and vaccines are in development.

Many bioterror diseases begin with the same symptoms as the flu. To reduce your worry -- and the very real chance of getting ill this winter -- the CDC recommends that people get their flu vaccine this year.

"People should get their flu shots," Gerberding says. "Now is the time to be especially compulsive about that."

Another good idea is for people to wash their hands regularly -- and properly. Use soap and warm water to scrub the hands for as long as it takes to say the ABCs. And remember to use a paper towel to turn off the faucet, and to open the door as you leave a public restroom.

Gerberding says there is no sign that any bioterror germs other than anthrax are currently being released in the U.S. However, the CDC has released a list of possible agents -- and the early symptoms of disease.

Anthrax:

  • The most deadly form of this disease comes from anthrax spores inhaled into the lungs. Early symptoms are very much like those of the flu: fever, headache, shortness of breath, a cough, and chest discomfort. These symptoms may seem to get better -- but 2 to 4 days later, the symptoms get much worse. Breathing becomes very difficult, the cough is very bad, and chills accompany the fever.
  • The most common form of this disease comes from anthrax spores that grow on the skin -- most often on the hands, arms, and/or face. There is swelling followed by an itchy, fluid-filled bump. After a day or two, this gets bigger and becomes a painless, open ulcer. Tissue in the middle of the ulcer dies and dries into a sunken black area surrounded by swollen skin and purplish bumps.

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