Biological Agents in the Mail Center Introduction

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Biological Agents in the Mail Center - Introduction

We can never predict how or when a terrorist attack using biological agents might occur, but we do know that the threat is real.

One possible scenario involves mailing a biological agent that would be intentionally distributed through the postal system to the target, causing death and infection and requiring a coordinated response including the addressee, law enforcement, public health and emergency response.

Another possible scenario involves hoax letters that, although they do not contain an actual biological agent, generate fear and panic in all involved. Such "hoaxes" also have an economic effect and drain resources for all involved.

Both these scenarios can best be dealt with by having a more thorough understanding and knowledge base of biological agents. This course is designed to increase your ability to assess and respond to a possible biological agent in a federal mail center, but may also be applied to various other business environments. Certainly the threat of biological agents being used against U.S. targets is broader and more likely than at any other point in our history. Therefore, awareness of this potential threat and education of our federal employees on how to manage it are crucial.


The purpose of this training is to provide an overview and quick reference for assessing and managing biological threats in federal mail centers. It is not intended as a definitive text on the medical management of biological agents. The course was developed by an interagency working group. Its members are listed in Appendix A.


The objectives of this course are:

  • To develop the ability to define and understand what a biological agent is; To identify 6 of the most likely biological agents to be used and their characteristics;

  • To know the incubation period, symptoms, and treatment for these agents;

  • To prepare for briefing others in the workplace on biological agents.

What is a Biological Agent?

A biological agent is any microorganism capable of causing disease or a toxin derived from a living organism that is deliberately used to produce death or disease in humans, animals or plants. A biological threat is any biological material capable of causing:

  • Death, disease, or any other biological malfunction in a human, an animal, a plant or another living organism;

  • Deterioration of food, water, equipment, supplies or material of any kind;

  • Harmful alteration of the environment.

Biological agents are fundamentally different from other weapons of mass destruction - nuclear and radiological devices, conventional explosives, or chemical weapons. Biological agents are sometimes called the "silent killers" because you can't see, smell or taste it. Biological agents can take days or weeks for symptoms to appear. The first sign of a biological attack may well be a patient in an emergency room or doctor's office. Since early detection, by those screening and opening the mail for example, may create the opportunity for successful prevention or treatment of the illness.

There Is A Difference Between Living In Fear And Being Prepared.

Why Now?

Since we as a nation are vulnerable to BioTerrorism, the best way to minimize our own vulnerabilities is to understand how bacteria and viruses might be used against us. A little bit of information goes a long way in changing anxiety into resolve. Prior to 1990, most people could not have named a biological warfare agent. Based on the tremendous media exposure during the Gulf War and the anthrax events in 2001, many people are familiar with "anthrax." By understanding the nature of biological agents, symptoms of exposure, how they would be deployed and symptoms, we can reduce the threat and potentially mitigate an attack or hoax.

Overview of Bacteria

Bacteria are microscopic organisms that are present in our everyday life. Some bacteria cause illness and are called pathogens. Biological agents are divided into 3 main categories:

  • Bacterial Agents

  • Viral Agents

  • Biological Toxins

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials have evaluated the biological agents and ranked them into three categories according to a risk matrix analysis. The first group, Category A, contains agents considered the greatest threat in terms of producing casualties or socio-economic disruption and the need for stockpiling antibiotics and vaccines. These threats include:

  • Anthrax

  • Smallpox

  • Plague

  • Tularemia

  • Botulinum toxin

  • Viral hemorrhagic fevers

Biological Agents in the Mail Center - Overview of Bacterial Agents

Bacteria are unicellular organisms. They vary in shape and size from spherical cells (cocci) with a diameter less than a micrometer to rod-shaped organisms (bacilli), which may be larger.

The shape of the bacterial cell is determined by the rigid cell wall. Under special circumstances some types of bacteria can transform into spores. The spore of bacterial cells are more resistant to adverse conditions e.g. cold, heat, drying, chemicals and radiation, than the vegetative bacterium itself.

Bacteria generally cause disease in human beings by one of two ways:

  • By invading host tissues

  • By producing toxins

Many pathogenic bacteria utilize both mechanisms. The diseases they cause often respond to specific therapy with antibiotics. Many of these biological agents also have an "incubation period" or time before symptoms become apparent. This time can be used effectively to specifically pin-point the biological agent in a laboratory and treat exposed individuals with antibiotics or antitoxins.

The name of the disease and the causative agent are often different. It is important to distinguish the name of the causative agent from the disease it produces. Examples of bacterial agents and the diseases include:


Causative Agent


Bacillus anthracis


Yersinia pestis


Francisella tularensis


Variola virus


Clostridium botulinum

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