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Facts About Public Health Emergencies

What is a public health emergency?

A public health emergency is anything that can make a lot of people really sick unexpectedly or quickly. Public health emergencies can be natural or man-made and can happen at any time. That's why it is important to be prepared.

Public health emergencies include:

  • Bioterrorist attack
    example: anthrax
  • New disease we may never have seen before
    examples: MERS-CoV, Zika, SARS in 2003
  • Unusual or severe disease
    examples: Rare tropical disease in Philadelphia (e.g. Ebola), large outbreak of meningitis
  • Pandemic influenza
    examples: H1N1 flu
  • Severe weather emergency
    examples: ice storm, hurricane, flooding, extreme heat
    health concerns: loss of power to electric dependent medical equipment, food spoilage, access to health appointments
  • Environmental and social problems
    examples: opioid overdoses, air quality, chemical spills, gas leaks, earthquake
  • Mass fatality incidents
    examples: train accident, bomb, building collapse

What is bioterrorism?

A bioterrorism agent is a germ that:

  • Can be easily spread or transmitted from person to person;
  • Results in high death rates and has the potential for major public health impact;
  • Might cause public panic; and
  • Requires special action for public health preparedness 

The following are examples of bioterrorism agent:

  • Bacillus anthracis, which causes anthrax
  • Clostridium botulinum toxin, which causes botulism
  • Yersinia pestis, which causes plague
  • Variola major, which causes smallpox
  • Francisella tularensis, which causes tularemia
  • Viral hemorrhagic fevers, like Ebola

Bioterrorism is the intentional release of viruses, bacteria, or other germs that can sicken or kill people, livestock, or crops. Perhaps the most famous bioterrorist attack occurred in 2001 when powdered anthrax spores were deliberately put into letters that were mailed through the U.S. postal system, but the United States has seen other attacks as well. For instance, in 1984, a cult in Oregon put salmonella in local salad bars. No one died from that attack, but lots of people got sick.

How is the Philadelphia Department of Public Health planning for climate change?

According to the climate projections for Philadelphia, weather conditions in Philadelphia will become hotter and wetter over time. This may mean more heat waves, more severe storms, and decreased air quality, all of which affect human health.

The Office of Sustainability has been leading the City’s efforts to identify and assess the impacts of climate change in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Department of Public Health is contributing to this effort by assessing the expected health effects associated with hotter and wetter weather and working with partner agencies to prepare residents for weather that can make people sick.

PDPH’s planning focuses on three major health risks:

  • Extreme heat: Summers in Philadelphia are getting hotter. Extreme heat can cause dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and even death. Extreme heat affects everyone, but some people, such as seniors or people who have chronic health conditions, like cardiovascular disease, are at greater risk for getting sick.
  •  Decreased air quality: Climate change will affect air quality in two ways. First, more days with hot temperatures will decrease air quality due to increases in dangerous pollutants that are formed through chemical reactions with sunlight. Second, increasing temperatures throughout the year can lead to longer growing seasons, which can increase pollen. People with allergies and asthma may feel worse on days with high pollen counts.
  • Changes to vector-borne diseases: Changes to temperature and precipitation could change the types and amounts of insects that spread diseases in Philadelphia. Mosquitoes and ticks can spread harmful diseases to humans. As temperatures and rainfall increase, we may see more mosquitoes and ticks and new diseases that haven’t occurred locally in the past.


To learn more about climate change in Philadelphia, visit the Office of Sustainability.  

Visit the pages below to learn about what we are doing to prepare, and what you can do to prepare. 

What the PDPH is Doing to Prepare
What You Can Do to Prepare
Volunteer with the Philadelphia MRC