Biological Warfare

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We have spent some time discussing traumatic wounds, thermal burns, and even radiation sickness, all of which are injuries sustained in disaster and doomsday scenarios.  Civil unrest, wildfires, and nuclear bombs and meltdowns are all catastrophes that the preparedness community is concerned about, but let’s talk about about something few consider as a possible cause of SHTF situations: biological warfare.

Biological warfare is the term given to the use of infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, fungi or their by-products to wreak death and havoc among a specific population.  As a result, the user achieves control over an area or a segment of the population by weakening the ability to resist.  Biological weapons don’t necessarily have to kill humans: unleashing a horde of locusts to destroy crops or agents that kill livestock can be just as effective.

This type of weapon has been used since ancient times, and even appears in the bible as part of the plagues visited upon Pharaoh by a wrathful God.  Medieval accounts of Bubonic plague-ridden corpses catapulted into besieged cities abound; this method was used as late at 1710, when the Russians attacked the Swedish city of Reval (present day Tallinn) in this manner.  The Western hemisphere was changed forever by the  inadvertent  introduction of smallpox into the Native American population, killing 90% in some areas and opening vast swaths of land for European colonization.   In addition, purposeful biological warfare occurred against Native Americans when the British presented a large “gift” of infected blankets as a “peace” offering during Pontiac’s War in the mid-1700s.

As time progressed, new methods and infectious agents such as Anthrax were used in certain situations during World War I.  As a result, use of biological weapons was banned by the Geneva Protocol in 1925, but research and production was still carried out by both sides during World War II.  Research into the use of Anthrax by the United Kingdom left their laboratory area in Scotland contaminated for the next five decades.  Eventually, the storage, production, and transport of such agents was banned in 1972 by the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).  Despite this, there are a number of violations that have been documented in the former Soviet Union and Iraq, and various others suspected.  As of 2011, 165 countries have signed the BWC pact.

The perfect biological weapon would have these characteristics:

  • Be infectious and contagious in a large percentage of those exposed
  • Cause severe long-term debilitation or death of the infected organism
  • Have few available antidotes, preventives or cures
  • Be easily deliverable to the area or population targeted
  • Have low likelihood of causing damage to those using the agent

The concerns about “accidents” affecting the aggressor have most countries reluctant to use such weapons in normal tactical situations.  During the largest such accident in 1979, a Russian lab released anthrax into the surrounding area, killing 42 people, infecting sheep over 200 miles away, and causing the immediate area to be off-limits even today.

Some candidates for use as biological warfare agents include Anthrax, Smallpox, Viral hemorrhagic Fevers (Ebola, etc.), and Pneumonic Plague.  Anthrax can be contracted in several ways, by skin contact, inhalation, and gastrointestinal infection.  More common in livestock than people, Anthrax is not an ideal “weapon of mass destruction” in that no person-to-person contagion occurs, except in skin cases (the least lethal form).  A “cloud” of Anthrax would be necessary to affect a large population, although large numbers of infected livestock could result in an epidemic of the disease in humans.  The bacterium exists as spores which, in the right environment, release toxins that cause a flu-like syndrome which eventually destroys cells in lymph nodes, spreading to the lungs and blood, and may be highly lethal.  Although Penicillin, Doxycycline, and Ciprofloxacin (Fish-Pen, Bird-Biotic, and Fish-Flox) are effective against this bacteria as a preventative or for early treatment, full-blown inhalation Anthrax may be difficult to survive, as the toxins released by the spores remain even if the spores are killed.  Inhalation Anthrax appears first as a flu-like syndrome, deteriorating to shock and death in many cases; luckily, not everyone exposed will get symptoms.  Because of higher risk of exposure, certain individuals, such as livestock workers, are often offered a vaccine against the disease.

Pneumonic is one of three types of plague and, by far, the most contagious, easily spread by coughing bacteria into the air.  It is caused by a bacteria known as Yersinia Pestis, usually found in rodents and other small animals and their fleas.  Also starting off as a flu-like syndrome, it quickly develops into pneumonia with fever, weakness,  shortness of breath, and cough (often with blood).  Pneumonic plague is different from Bubonic plague in that the patient will not have swellings in the groin or armpit (called “Buboes”). Unlike inhalation Anthrax, which may take weeks to develop symptoms, patients with Pneumonic plague may be dead in 2-4 days if not treated early. Tetracycline (Fish-Cycline), Doxycycline (Bird-Biotic) and Ciprofloxacin (Fish-Flox), and IV Gentamycin are common treatments.  Oxygen is often used to support the sick individual, and protective masks are imperative for those who are caring for them.

There are several types of viral fevers associated with different organisms that normally infect rodents.  Hemorrhagic Fevers like Ebola start off with fever, diarrhea,  and weakness, but progress to more serious problems relating to internal and external hemorrhaging. Patients may bleed from eyes, ears, nose, mouth, or rectum and may have bruising on the skin from subcutaneous bleeding.  Normal antivirals don’t seem to cure this disease, and death rates may be as high as 90%.  The illness is spread by bodily fluids and other contact, so masks and gloves, again, are extremely important for health care workers.

Smallpox is another viral illness that is highly contagious and was responsible for the decimation of the Native American population in the Americas .  Related to the chickenpox virus, it differs in that all the blisters develop at the same time, rather than their being at different points of developing and healing.  Contact with these blisters causes the disease to be contagious.  Fever and fatigue accompany the illness.  Although rare in developed countries now, it was prevalent in the past and FEMA stockpiles Smallpox vaccines in enough quantity to vaccinate every U.S. citizen.  No curative treatment is currently available, and complications can lead to shock and death.

By-products released by microbes and plants walk the fine line between biological weapons and chemical weapons.  Toxin released by the bacteria that causes botulism causes paralysis of muscles, and is used in small quantities as the cosmetic agent Botox.  Ingredients in castor beans contain Ricin, a potent toxin that causes respiratory and circulatory failure.  3 mg. of Ricin is potent enough to kill an average-sized adult if inhaled.  More on this in future articles.

Be sure to stock up on respirator masks, gloves, antiseptics, and other items that will keep possibly contagious disease from spreading to your entire family or survival group.

Joe Alton MD

Hey, don’t forget to check out our entire line of quality medical kits and individual supplies at Also, our Book Excellence Award-winning 700-page SURVIVAL MEDICINE HANDBOOK: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE FOR WHEN HELP IS NOT ON THE WAY is now available in black and white on Amazon and in color and color spiral-bound versions at

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