There are basically four parts to our overall defense:
The detection of a chemical agent aims at giving the alert in time to be able to take effective protective measures.
The methods of detection available to us are not optimal because the chemical will most likely have done a lot of damage by the time the detector raises the alarm and emergency personnel can be mobilized.
Detection of biological agents is even more troublesome. In this case, it may be several days or even weeks before evidence of the attack shows up. This will only happen when more and more people start displaying symptoms of the disease. By then, it may have spread far and wide.
Most doctors have not been trained in how to recognize early symptoms of the main biological weapons agents. The early symptoms of anthrax, for example, can appear as a simple flu.
When a chemical attack takes place, protection is initially down to the individual. No matter how quickly emergency personnel are mobilized, they will most likely be too late to assist you during the attack.
Basically, it's a question of doing the best you can in whatever circumstance you find yourself in (at home, in the car, at work, etc.). A little later we'll look at the steps you should take to protect yourself and your family in the event of an attack.
When a biological attack happens, it will most likely go by unnoticed until victims of the attack begin to display symptoms. For this reason there is little you can do to protect yourself from the attack and its consequences until you become aware that it has happened. A little later we'll look at the steps to protecting yourself and your family once you know that a biological attack has taken place.
Decontamination is the reduction or the removal of chemical or biological agents that you've come into contact with. See the page How to decontaminate yourself after exposure for further information about this.
In the event of a biological attack the question of medication is a complex one.
Vaccinations currently exist for anthrax, botulism toxin, tularemia, plague, Q fever, and smallpox. Immune protection against ricin and staphylococcal toxins may be feasible in the near future.
However, having yourself vaccinated against any of these diseases remains difficult.
The US Department of Defense has started vaccinating some members of the military against anthrax, but because of the fact that some of those receiving the vaccine have had adverse effects, no such vaccination program is currently planned for the general population.
Nobody has been vaccinated against smallpox since 1980. Even those vaccinated before then may no longer be safe as the vaccination may have lost most of its effectiveness by now.
The Center for Disease Control has enough stockpiles of smallpox vaccines for less than 8 million people with an additional 40 million on order (not due for delivery until 2004). There is a fear that the vaccine currently in stock may not be effective because it's about 40 years old and has possibly degraded over time.
A vaccine against the bubonic plague exists, but it needs to be administered between four and seven months before exposure. This makes a vaccination program virtually impossible.
For many other potential biological agents, there is no vaccination available to the general population.
There is also the danger that terrorists could develop new strains of the biological agent. In this scenario, the time required to develop and establish a new vaccine is estimated to be up to 3 years.
After you've been exposed to a biological agent, vaccination is no longer useful. Then it becomes a question of cure.
There are antibiotics available that can be effective against some biological agents. For example, doctors can prescribe antibiotics against anthrax that are effective if taken quickly (before symptoms start to show up or at the very beginning of the first symptoms). If left untreated, the disease is fatal in 90% of cases.
So far, there are no known anti-viral substances that have proven effective against smallpox after exposure although some recent tests are producing promising results. The disease is estimated to be fatal in about 30% of cases.
While you may be tempted to stock up on antibiotics to be prepared in case of an attack, this is not advisable.
To have personal stockpiles of all those antibiotics for yourself and everyone in your family (and carry them around all the time) would be impractical and potentially dangerous.
Furthermore, if we all start stocking up on the limited medication that is available, then there will be nothing left to treat those that actually fall victim to an attack.
The National Pharmaceutical Stockpile has large numbers of antibiotics against a range of biological diseases in supply. These medicines can be deployed quickly in the event of an emergency.
When it comes to a medical reaction to biological agents, its best left up to the professionals to take care of the situation.
In most cases, the medical community will be able to act quickly to prevent death, limit infection and halt the spread of the disease.
With regards to chemical agents, the situation is not any better.
The effects of most chemical gases are swift. If the gas is deadly, then there is slim hope of receiving appropriate medical treatment in time. If the gas is non-deadly, then the resulting symptoms can be medically treated.
There is no effective antidote against any of the existing chemical agents (although an antidote exists, that soldiers can inject in case of attack, which allows them to bear high doses of neurotoxins without harmful long-term effects).
Certain medicines, taken preventively, can decrease the effect of some chemicals.
With the increased threat of an attack from terrorist organizations we can hope to see increased efforts on the part of government agencies to put more effective measures in place to protect the general population.
However, even if this happens, it will be only partially effective.
The fact remains that there are no effective treatments that exist against some of these poisons, and even if treatments are developed, there is every chance that new strains of biological agents will be developed to remain one step ahead of scientists.
The same can be said of detection systems. While these can help in some situations, and are vital to the rapid deployment of emergency personnel and medication, they still fall short of providing any defense for those who are immediately affected by the attack.
This leads to one simple conclusion: there is no guaranteed way of surviving a chemical or biological attack. All you can do is try to minimize the risk to yourself and your family by being prepared.
Information on Chemical & Biological suits and masks can found on DuPont's website : Chemical Suits. Some chemical suits can be purchased at Home Depot and Lowes in the paint section. The Tyvek suits will provide very basic protection, but some is better than none.