Bioterrorism FAQs

Amy K. Erickson

Pharmacy Today. 2001;7(11) 

In This Article

How can pharmacists tell the difference between a flu outbreak and a bioterrorist attack?

"Pharmacists may well be the sentinel of surveillance for the community," said Downs. Experts predict that if a bioterrorist were to successfully disseminate an infectious agent in a community, very early on sick people may be walking into community pharmacies to seek treatment recommendations and over-the-counter relief of their symptoms before going to their physician or hospital emergency department. "Pharmacists need to let public health officials know if they have seen more than one case with similar symptoms," said Colleen Terriff, PharmD, clinical pharmacist at Deaconess Medical Center in Spokane, Wash., and assistant professor, Department of Pharmacy Practice, Washington State University.

Here are a few questions a pharmacist should ask patients to help determine whether it is just a flu bug or something more serious:

  • Are family members or co-workers experiencing similar symptoms? If it is a biological agent, all family members or co-workers exposed to the material at the same time will have begun having symptoms simultaneously. If it is a cold or the flu, the virus will be passed among them more slowly, over a period of days or weeks.

  • How long have you been feeling bad and are the symptoms getting worse? A cold or the flu is typically miserable for the first few days, but then symptoms begin to taper off. With a biological agent, the symptoms will rapidly get worse over a short period of time with no signs of improvement.

  • Describe your activities for the past few days. Have you traveled, eaten out, or spent time at a mall, stadium, fair, or other large public gathering? The purpose is to discover if there is anything to link them to other patients presenting with similar symptoms. "Timeline and exposure location is important information to relay when contacting public health officials," said Amy Tee, PharmD, clinical pharmacist at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Wash.

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