How Biological Agents Are Delivered and Detected

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on June 08, 2022


Biological agents are engineered proteins that target specific parts of the immune system. They could be found in the environment by using advanced detection devices, found after specific testing, or found by a doctor reporting a medical diagnosis of an illness caused by an agent. Animals may also be early victims and shouldn't be overlooked.

  • Early detection of a biological agent in the environment allows for early, specific treatment as well as time to treat others who were exposed by giving protective medications. Currently, the U.S. Department of Defense is evaluating devices to detect clouds of biological warfare agents in the air.
  • Doctors must be able to identify early victims and recognize patterns of disease. If unusual symptoms, a large numbers of people with symptoms, dead animals, or other inconsistent medical findings are noted, a biological warfare attack should be suspected. Doctors report these patterns to public health officials.

Protective measures

Protective measures can be taken against biological warfare agents. If enough warning is received, these measures should be started as soon as a biological agent is suspected.

  • Masks: Currently, available masks, such as the military gas mask or high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter masks such as N-95s used for tuberculosis exposure, filter out most biological warfare particles delivered through the air. However, the face seals on ill-fitting masks often leak. For a mask to fit properly, it must be fitted to a person's face.
  • Clothing: Most biological agents in the air do not penetrate unbroken skin, and few organisms stick to skin or clothing. After an aerosol attack, the simple removal of clothing eliminates a great majority of surface contamination. Thorough showering with soap and water removes 99.99% of the few organisms that may be left on the victim's skin.
  • Medical personnel protection: Health care providers treating victims of biological warfare may not need special suits but should use latex gloves and take other precautions such as wearing gowns and masks with protective eye shields. Victims should be isolated in private rooms while receiving treatment.
  • Antibiotics: Victims of biological warfare might be given antibiotics orally (pills) or through an IV, even before the specific agent is identified.
  • Vaccinations: Currently, protective vaccines (given as shots) are available for anthrax, botulinum toxin, tularemia, plague, Q fever, and smallpox. The widespread immunization of nonmilitary personnel has not been currently recommended by any governmental agency. Immune protection against ricin and staphylococcal toxins may also be possible in the near future.

Show Sources


eMedicineHealth: "How Biological Agents Are Delivered and Detected."

Medscape: "CBRNE - Biological Warfare Agents."

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