27 Nov 2022


The 2001 Anthrax Attacks

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Anthrax is one of the deadliest diseases on earth that is feared by many people and it is caused by the spore-forming bacteria known as Bacillus anthracis . Majorly, the bacteria are found in the soil and they can remain dormant for many years. It commonly infects plant-eating animals, but it can also be found in animals. Anthrax infection is rare in the US, which may partly explain why the country was ill prepared when it suffered anthrax attack in 2001. Soon after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the US suffered another worse biological attack when letters laced with anthrax bacteria started appearing in the country’s mail. It is estimated that the anthrax attack killed about 5 and leaving 17 others seriously sick. At the same time, about 33,000 people were taken to post-exposure prophylaxis. The attack was costly because the US spent about $3 billion to contain it. In addition, it led to the closure of American Media Inc (AMI) building, and the country spent about $24 billion to clean it up, making it free from the bacteria. Therefore, apart from losing lives, the anthrax attack was costly to the people of the US, as the government spent huge sums of money to address it (Heyman, Achterberg & Laszlo, 2002). However, there is still concern on how the concerned authorities handled the emergency situations. The emergency team was accused of not doing their work properly. Therefore, the paper focuses on how the emergency team responded to the 2001 anthrax attack, and what could have been done to make it better. 

Emergency Response to 2001 Anthrax Attack 

The 2001 anthrax attack was relatively small as it only claimed 5 lives and leaving 17 people seriously infected. In the contrary, it consequences was huge and far-reaching, as it led to the shutdown of AMI, part of the US Congress, the Supreme Court while at the same time costing the country billions of money. Some of the emergency experts argue that the effects were huge due to the poorly coordinated team. However, the response to the attack was huge because it involved many medical practitioners and law enforcement personnel, both from private and public sector from federal and state governments. Generally, attack like this involves about 1,000 medical practitioners from different fields who come together to arrest the situation, and 2001 anthrax attack was not an exception ( Roos & Schnirring, 2011). 

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Coordination is the most important factor in arresting the emergency situation. Since emergency involves a number of personnel from various fields, it is important to ensure effective coordination to contain the emergency situation. Basically, it can be said that the emergency team that was involved in 2001 was fairly coordinated. The emergency personnel and groups heavily relied on formal agreements such as legal contracts and memorandum of understanding in order to identify and respond to the needs (US Government Accountability Office, 2003). Some of the most important needs that were required during the emergency situation were coordination across disciplines, accessing scientific information, including human resources. According to some of the emergency personnel who were involved in the attack, coming up with formal agreements and contracts played a significant role in strengthening their level of preparedness in completely containing the situation and reducing the level of casualties. 

However, the coordination mechanisms that had been put in place to respond to the attack were not completely effective. The formal agreements that were established to enhance the coordination in the emergency team left out some of the important aspects that were required to effectively respond to the emergency situation For instance, some of the personnel who were involved in addressing the attack relied on personal relationship in order to work, which is good, but can affect objective decision-making (US Government Accountability Office, 2003). The formal agreements also did not cover all aspects that were required to effectively respond to the situation, and some of the personnel ended up handling issues that could not have been addressed. In addition, the formal agreement that was aimed at enhancing coordination did not take care of the welfare of the personnel, as some claimed that systems had not been put in place to authorize the payment for their overtime. Therefore, even though the emergency team managed to come up with formal agreements to assist in coordinating various personnel, they were not comprehensive enough to cover all aspects that are required to respond to the emergency situation. 

Apart from effective coordination of emergency team, communication is also required to adequately respond to any emergency. Communication between the parties involved was relatively effective. For instance, the communication between the locals and state emergency response team was relatively effective. As a result, the urgency team was informed of the activities that were taking place during the response. This was due to the fact that the systems of communication that were required were already in existence even before the attack. The emergency team mainly used the regular conference calls in order to disseminate information, address the emerging issues, and answer questions that were raised by various experts involved in arresting the situation. In addition, the emergency team relied on cell phones, email, and fax machines to communicate and share relevant information (Heyman, Achterberg & Laszlo, 2002). Generally, there was effective communication between various emergency teams that were involved in the 2001 anthrax attack. Consequently, the local response agencies were able to get the information that they needed from of state and local agencies. 

Nevertheless, there were some problems with the communication system that was put in place to respond to the anthrax attack in 2001. Specifically, the emergency team did not have communication backup that could be used in case the system cracked down or became unavailable. For instance, the public health officers who were involved in the emergency situation did not have a communication system that they could use to evacuate the affected buildings. They did not have laptops and cell phones that could enable them to keep working in case they were informed to evacuate the buildings they were working in ( Roos & Schnirring, 2011) . The importance of effective communication became evident when the fire department that was party to the emergency situation requested about the type of equipment that they needed to use when responding to anthrax sought information from the local health department (Heyman, Achterberg & Laszlo, 2002). It was reported that the local health department took weeks in order to respond to firefighters, which negatively affected response to the emergency. 

There was also poor coordination between the media and the emergency team. The emergency team found it hard to provide needed information to the media during the anthrax incident (Heyman, Achterberg & Laszlo, 2002). It needed the media to persuade the public to seek treatment. Even though the emergency team managed to reach the media to disseminate important information to the public, it took them a lot of time. Therefore, poor communication and coordination were the main challenges that affected the effectiveness of the emergency team that was responding to anthrax incident that took place in 2001. Effective coordination of various personnel and timely and accurate sharing of information is required in any emergency situation as the one experienced by the US in 2001. 

Lack of experience with anthrax was another major challenge that affected response to anthrax incident with the emergency team, particularly among the physicians. Particularly, physicians involved were not sure of the instruction to use when diagnosing inhalational anthrax. At the same time, physicians found it challenging to differentiate between influenza and anthrax symptoms. Consequently, there was a high rate of missing diagnosis. Besides, people started coming to health facilities in large numbers suspecting that they had asthma due to the inaccuracy in the symptoms that were provided by the medical practitioners. Although this was expected due to the fact that anthrax is a rare disease in the US, it significantly affected the ability of the emergency team to respond to the situation ( Roos & Schnirring, 2011). 

In addition, public health workers who were part of the emergency team were overwhelmed with work. The workload during anthrax incident increased substantially in the health departments and laboratories across the country. Consequently, public work officers were forced to do a lot of work that included testing a large number of samples and responding to numerous calls. For instance, some health workers were forced to respond to about 25,000 calls within two weeks during the crisis (Heyman, Achterberg & Laszlo, 2002). In order to solve the problem of increased workload, the emergency team borrowed workers from other agencies such as the CDC to help in meeting the demand for laboratory testing and surveillance. However, borrowing workers came with an additional challenge as they had to be trained for their new duties, which was time-consuming and costly. Besides, some of the health centers lacked crucial experts such as epidemiologists who were needed to investigate the suspected cases of anthrax. There were no enough personnel, particularly public health workers to effectively address the emergency situation. 

Apart from the lack of enough health personnel, there was also the problem of underequipped laboratories that faced the emergency team. The majority of available laboratories did not have the capacity to handle the large kind of tests that was witnessed during the anthrax incident. For instance, according to the report that was released by CDC after the incident, it was estimated that the laboratories that were within the Laboratory Response Network were used to test about 120, 000 samples, which were far much above their capacities (US Government Accountability Office, 2003). A number of laboratories also did not have the required equipment needed to test anthrax. For instance, some laboratories did not have biological safety cabinets that were needed to prevent by lab technicians to prevent inhalation of anthrax spores. At the same time, some of the laboratories did not chemicals that were required to conduct appropriate anthrax tests. Unfortunately, in some state, there was no laboratory that could be used to test anthrax. Besides, even the laboratories that had the equipment to test anthrax did not have the require protocols to test anthrax, which led to a lot of delays. Therefore, lack of facilities was another challenge that was experienced by an emergency team that was responding to the anthrax incident in 2001. 

It was also reported that the law enforcement officers, especially the criminal investigation department hindered the flow of information to the emergency team, particularly health experts who were involved in the anthrax incident. A significant number of local officials who were involved in the anthrax incident complained that the criminal investigation team prevented them from obtaining information that they required to carry out public health response (US Government Accountability Office, 2003). Some found it hard to find information from FBI because they did not have security clearance. At the same time, some of the public health officials were not allowed to share laboratory results with other health personnel who were involved in the incident. 

Therefore, the criminal aspects of the anthrax incident significantly affected the dissemination of information, especially to the public. The criminal investigation team that was involved in the incident instructed the health personnel to withhold some information from the public. Consequently, this hindered the ability of the public to take precautionary measures to protect themselves from anthrax infections. The criminal investigation team argued that releasing too much information to the public could lead to widespread fear. However, it was important for the public to know the level of risks involved in order to take necessary measures ( Heyman, Achterberg & Laszlo, 2002). 

Despite the fact that the emergency team managed to arrest the anthrax incident that occurred in 2001, it was slow in response because the country as a whole was ill-prepared to handle anthrax attacks. The country lacked both facility and intellectual capacity to handle such attacks. The main challenges that affected the response team were ineffective communication and coordination and lack of manpower and medical facilities. Timely and accurate information is needed in any emergency incident, and this can only be achieved through effective communication and coordination. At the same time, there must be trained manpower and readily available equipment and materials to deal with urgent situations. Generally, emergency team, state, and federal governments were not in a better position to handle the biological attacks like the one witnessed in the country in 2001 ( Heyman, Achterberg & Laszlo, 2002). 

How the Incident could have been Handled Better Today 

In order to improve how the emergency team handles an urgent situation such as anthrax, it needs functional and well-equipped facilities. Therefore, it is important for the US to develop adequate health infrastructures. Rapid detection of diseases such as anthrax and effective response require highly equipped laboratories. The underequipped laboratories were the main challenge that affected the response of the emergency team, as the disease could not be diagnosed on time. Hence, there is the need for the US to maintain laboratory system that is able to offer critical support when it comes to a disease outbreak. In order to enhance the response of the emergency team, it is important for the country to develop multidisciplinary biodefense laboratories that can be used to analyze various diseases (Heyman, Achterberg & Laszlo, 2002). In addition, the laboratories should have the capacity to do a comprehensive forensic analysis of microbiology samples. Apart from physical facilities, it is crucial for the country to have enough number of health personnel who can adequately respond to emergency incidents such that of anthrax. The overworked public health workers led to the low response to the anthrax incident. Therefore, the first step in handling any emergency situation is having trained personnel and facilities that they need to carry out their work ( Greenwood et. al .,2016). 

With the inability to accurately test anthrax, there was no way the emergency team could effectively respond to the anthrax incident that occurred in 2001 in the US. The physicians were confusing symptoms of anthrax with those of influenza, which led to a lot of confusion among health experts and the public in general. However, with improved medical technology in the current society, such problems can easily be addressed when handling anthrax crisis, including attacks. There is now new technology that can detect and quantify the level of anthrax toxins in the body. The technology enables physicians to diagnose anthrax at early stages. At the same time, the new technology has the ability to monitor the efficacy of treatment of the disease as well as any disease that may arise of anthrax-related terrorist attacks as the one witnessed in 2001 (Barr, Boyer & Quinn, 2010). Therefore, in the event that attack occurred today, physicians may not have the difficulties diagnosing and testing the disease, which can lead to a quick response to anthrax crisis in the country. 

At the same time, communication should not be a major challenge in addressing the emergency situation in the current advanced society as was the one experienced by the emergency team during the anthrax incident. Even though the team had a communication system, it was not effective enough to enable effective communication. Cell phone and email are currently the most reliable and effective communication system that can be used by emergency teams. For instance, it could easily be used by the health department to communicate to the firefighters the type of materials that they could use in the anthrax incident. At the same time, social media can easily be used to disseminate information to the public instead of using the mainstream media such as radio and TV, which could not easily be accessed during the anthrax incident in 2001. Rather than using mainstream media, the emergency team can use social media to communicate to the public, especially due to the fact that a significant number of people use social media use them on daily basis. For instance, 79% of Americans use Facebook of a daily basis in the US, making it the most effective means of communication critical information to the public (Greenwood et al ., 2016). Besides, effective coordination can easily be achieved in the modern society with the use of advanced technologies. Currently, there is emergency integrated emergency management software that can be used coordinate and track emergency personnel and resources while at the same time streamlining information in the team. For instance, in the case of anthrax incident in 2001, the emergency team could have used ArcGIS™ system, which is manufactured by Esri to coordinate the team members. Therefore, the many challenges that faced emergency team during the 2001 anthrax attack can easily be solved in the current society using the modern technologies (Greenwood et al ., 2016). 


2001 anthrax attack was the worst biological attacks that had been witnessed by the US despite the fact that only 5 people died. The attack was costly to the US because it spent billions of dollars to arrest the situation. However, this could have been prevented if the emergency team had the capacity to adequately respond to the incident. Lack of health care facilities, inadequate medical manpower, and poor communication and coordination significantly affected the effectiveness of the emergency team. Nevertheless, the challenge can now be reduced using the modern technologies. 


Barr, J. R., Boyer, A. E., & Quinn, C. P. (2010). Anthrax: modern exposure science combats a deadly, ancient disease. Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology , 20 (7), 573. 

Greenwood, S, Perrin, A & Duggan, M. (2016, May 11). Social Media Update 2016: Facebook usage and engagement is on the rise, while adoption of other platforms holds steady . PewResearchCenter . Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/11/11/social-media-update-2016/ 

Heyman, D., Achterberg, J., & Laszlo, J. (2002). Lessons from the Anthrax Attacks: Implications for US Bioterrorism Preparedness: A Report on a National Forum on Biodefense . Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

Roos, R. & Schnirring, L. (2011, September 1). Public Health Leaders Cite Lessons of 2001 Anthrax Attacks. Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy . Retrieved from http://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2011/09/public-health-leaders-cite-lessons-2001-anthrax-attacks 

US Government Accountability Office. (2003). Bioterrorism: Public Health Response to Anthrax Incidents of 2001 . Retrieved from http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d04152.pdf 

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