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Facts About Public Health Emergencies

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health works every day to make sure Philadelphia is prepared for any kind of public health emergency.

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health has developed plans to respond to a variety of emergencies, including bioterrorism. These plans involve our partners at the state and federal levels. We also work closely with partners throughout City government, including the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management, the Philadelphia Police Department, the Philadelphia Fire Department, as well as local healthcare providers and hospitals.

What is a public health emergency?

A public health emergency is anything that can make lots of people really sick unexpectedly or quickly. Examples of public health emergencies include H1N1 influenza, an outbreak of meningitis at a university and even a bioterrorist attack. Public health emergencies can be natural or man-made and can happen at any time. That's why it is important to be prepared.

What types of public health emergencies is PDPH preparing for?

The Bioterrorism and Public Health Preparedness Program is currently developing, refining and testing a number of plans to respond to public health emergencies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires us to plan for bioterrorist attacks like the anthrax attacks seen in 2001. We have also developed plans to respond to pandemic influenza, suspect white powder, smallpox and mass casualty incidents, like an airplane crash.

What is bioterrorism?

Bioterrorism is when someone releases a germ that can infect people and make them very sick. The most famous bioterrorist attack is the 2001 anthrax letters, but the United States has seen other attacks. In 1984, a cult in Washington State put salmonella in local salad bars. No one died from that attack, but lots of people got sick. The CDC has categorized germs into different categories depending on how dangerous the germ is.

What are the CDC's bioterrorism categories?

Category A agents are germs that

  • can be easily spread or transmitted from person to person;
  • result in high death rates and have the potential for major public health impact;
  • might cause public panic; and
  • require special action for public health preparedness.

There are currently six Category A agents. Anyone who tries to buy or research these agents must undergo a very intense background check to make sure they aren't used by people who would want to hurt other people. The six agents are:

  • Anthrax
  • C. Botulinum toxin, which causes Botulism
  • Plague
  • Smallpox
  • F. Tularensis, which causes Tularemia
  • Hemorrhagic viruses, like Ebola or Marburg

Category B agents

  • are moderately easy to spread;
  • result in some sickness and some people dying