Bioterror Protection: Debunking the Myths
Oct. 12, 2001 -- A tiny little spore with the jarring name of
anthrax is dominating the airwaves because of the damage it has done -- and can
still do. The obvious question is: what can you do to protect yourself
from anthrax and other forms of bioterrorism? Should you stockpile antibiotics
and protective gear? Or is that too drastic?
Luciana Borio, MD, of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian
Biodefense, gives her advice on what you should and should not do.
Q: The antibiotic Cipro (ciprofloxacin) has been
noted as a defense against anthrax. Some have also said it would be useless.
What is your opinion on it, and is it something we should consider getting our
Borio responds: We know that ciprofloxacin, which is
also known by its brand name Cipro, is an effective antibiotic in that it
prevents the progression of inhaled anthrax for people who have been exposed to
the type of bacteria.
Because the majority of people would die of anthrax without
treatment, the government or the CDC in particular, has built a national
pharmaceutical stockpile that contains large quantities of medical equipment as
well as antibiotics such as ciprofloxacin. In the event of an attack, it is
anticipated they would distribute the antibiotic to those who have been
exposed. They have the ability to move their materials within 12 hours to any
place in the U.S.
Therefore, we do not recommend private citizens stockpile their
Some people are suggesting stockpiling tetracycline and
doxycycline. What would they do to protect me from a biological
Again, if given within a timely fashion, these antibiotics are
useful in preventing the development of the disease for which an individual may
have been exposed. However, exposed means during an attack.
Anthrax is not contagious -- that means it
does not pass from one person to another. So there is no reason for people to
take antibiotics out of fear of contracting the disease. It is not recommended
to take these antibiotics continually -- that could be dangerous and could lead
to development of resistance, and they are expensive. So the only role for them
is to be administered if somebody is known to have been exposed to anthrax
during a biological release.
So the decision is complex, and the
determination of when a release happens is best accomplished by public-health
officials, at which time people would be given the antibiotics.
Q: These antibiotics that have been
mentioned -- ciprofloxacin, tetracycline and doxycycline -- are they safe for
children, pregnant women, and the elderly?
Under normal situations, these antibiotics are avoided in
children and pregnant women. However, if that individual has been exposed to
anthrax, the benefit may outweigh the risks of taking the antibiotic. These are
consensus recommendations, but they have not been studied in children and