Biological Agents and Public Health Threats

A bioterrorism attack involves the deliberate release of viruses, bacteria or other germs that are intended to cause illness or death in people, animals or plants. Typically found in nature, these "agents" are categorized according to how easily they are spread or their ability to cause widespread damage to people or property. For further information on responses to potential bio-terrorism agents, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more information.

Reporting Communicable & Infectious Disease

A region-wide partnership analyzes data to assist agencies in efforts to monitor potential public health threats. As part of a statewide surveillance system, healthcare professionals in St. Charles County are required to notify the Communicable Disease and Epidemiology staff any incidences of certain reportable diseases and incidents.

To report potential public health threats in St. Charles County, please visit the Communicable Disease program page.

Category "A" Biological Agents

Category "A" organisms are considered those of the highest risk to national security. This is determined because these agents can:

  • Easily be spread or transmitted from person to person
  • Result in high death rates and have a high potential for major public health impact
  • Cause public panic and/or social disruption
  • Require special action by responders for public health preparedness

Examples of Category "A" Agents

Anthrax is caused by the bacterium (Bacillus anthracis), anthrax occurs in 3 forms: cutaneous (skin), inhalation and gastrointestinal. It occurs naturally in wild and domestic mammals (especially cattle, sheep, goats, camels, antelope and other herbivores), but it has also been used as a bioterrorism weapon for centuries. When exposed, patients have experienced fever, flu-like symptoms, a sore throat and difficulty swallowing, and sores or ulcers.

Botulism is caused by a toxin made by the bacterium (Clostridium butlinum). Botulism appears in 5 forms: foodborne, infant, adult intestinal, iatrogenic (accidental overdose) and wound. All forms are potentially fatal, but foodborne is the biggest health risk because many people can be poisoned by eating a contaminated food. Symptoms of botulism include double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing and muscle weakness / paralysis.

Plague is caused by the bacterium (Yersinia pestis), plague occurs in 3 forms: pneumonic, bubonic and septicemic. This bacterium is found in rodents and their fleas, so plague spreads when an infected flea bites a person or through breathing in the aerosolized bacteria transmitted from an infected person. Symptoms include fever, headache, weakness, rapidly developing pneumonia, and swollen/tender lymph glands (bubonic plague only).

Smallpox is caused by the variola virus, smallpox occurs in 2 forms: variola major and variola minor. Through a successful worldwide vaccination program, the disease has been eradicated, with the last naturally occurring case in Somalia in 1977. Since routine vaccination against the disease is no longer considered necessary, there is a concern that smallpox could be used as a bioterrorism agent. The disease can be spread through direct contact with bodily fluids or through contact with contaminated objects like bedding or clothing. Symptoms include high fever, general body aches and vomiting in the initial stages, followed by a rash containing small red spots in the mouth and on the skin.

Tularemia is caused by the bacterium (Francisella tularensis). Tularemia is transmitted through tick or deer fly bites, handling infected animals or through inhaling / ingesting the infected bacteria. It is commonly found in rabbits, hares and rodents, which then pass along the disease to humans, and reports of this disease have been found in all U.S. states except Hawaii. Symptoms vary upon how the bacteria enters the body, but include: sudden fever, swelling of the lymph nodes, skin ulcers, eye irritation, sore throat and difficulty breathing, headaches, or cough and chest pain.

Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers (Filoviruses & Arenaviruses)
Viral hemorrhagic fevers are a group of illnesses involving several distinct families of viruses. They all involve damage to multiple organ systems and range from mild illnesses to life-threatening diseases. Symptoms vary by the type, but most often include fever, fatigue, loss of strength, and bleeding. Among the diseases in this category are Arenaviruses, Ebola virus, Lassa fever and the Marburg virus.

Additional Public Health Threats

Pandemic Illness

A pandemic illness spreads throughout the community whose population has little or no immunity. This is a serious incident as the illness spreads easily to a wide range of people and will seriously impact the community. The risks involved in the rapid spread of illness are that the health care system would be overwhelmed, medical supplies will likely be inadequate and that economies would suffer from the lost output of sick workers. While seasonal flu strikes annually, a pandemic is a rare and significant occurrence.

Foodborne Illness

Staff from the Department of Public Health works together with organizations throughout our community to prevent foodborne outbreaks before they occur and to track the sources if cases are discovered. The St. Charles County Food Code outlines food safety procedures that restaurants, grocery stores, temporary food vendors and other entities must follow when providing food services to the public. In addition, health department staff investigates incidents of food contamination to prevent outbreaks.

The goals of these investigations is to discover the probable cause of the illness, to minimize further spread of illness from this incident and to provide controls that will prevent recurrence. If you believe that you’ve become sick while dining in a restaurant in St. Charles County or from food products obtained from a St. Charles County food vendor, please call the Division of Environmental Health and Protection at 636-949-1800.

Animal-Spread Illness

Pet ownership can provide many positive benefits, and animals are an important part of our community. However, some animals (both wild and domestic) can spread germs in a variety of ways that may make people sick. Insects, such as mosquitoes and ticks, can spread viruses and other infections by biting people and animals. Spread through the bite from an infected animal, rabies can infect the brain and nervous system of both humans and their pets. For an extensive list of zoonotic (animal-spread) diseases, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Global Public Health

In addition to local efforts, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses its expertise to help people throughout the world. Coordinated by the United Nations, the World Health Organization also monitors disease outbreaks and assesses global health conditions.