Biologic Weapons

Biologic Weapons is a topic covered in the 5-Minute Emergency Consult.

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  • Defined as naturally occurring organisms or toxins that are purified and prepared for mass dissemination with intent of causing mass morbidity, mortality, and social disruption.
  • Organisms include bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
  • Over 400 potential or actualized etiologic agents capable of being used as biologic weapon:
    • Characterized by their relatively low cost compared with other weapons of mass destruction (WMD), high potency, and their ability to be delivered in a stealthy manner
    • Stealth quality of biologic weapons comes from organism's natural incubation period.
  • Easy to conceal and difficult to detect:
    • Agents often invisible to naked eye, odorless, and tasteless
  • Patients typically present to various health care facilities with host of common complaints, adding to delay in recognition of covert release of biologic weapon.
  • Victims of biologic warfare agents are exposed either via direct cutaneous contact with agent, respiratory inhalation of aerosolized agent, or via GI tract after poisoning of food or water source.


  • Bacteria:
    • Anthrax: Bacillus anthracis
    • Plague: Yersinia pestis
    • Cholera: Infection from Vibrio cholerae:
      • Presents with severe GI symptoms and rapidly leads to profound dehydration
    • Tularemia: Francisella tularensis
    • Brucellosis: Organism in the Brucella genus
    • Q fever: Coxiella burnetii
  • Viruses:
    • Smallpox: Variola virus
    • Viral encephalitides: Members of Alphavirus genus (Venezuelan equine encephalitis, Eastern equine encephalitis, and Western equine encephalitis)
    • Viral hemorrhagic fevers: From 4 families of viruses, includes illnesses such as Ebola, Marburg, Lassa, and dengue fever
  • Toxins:
    • Ricin
    • Staphylococcal enterotoxin B
    • Botulinum toxin
    • Mycotoxins

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