Feb 19, 2010 (CIDRAP News) An overwhelming majority of Americans would probably follow public health advice to pick up antibiotics after an anthrax attack, but a sizable minority wouldn't take them right away, according to a poll by the Harvard School of Public Health.
Preventive antibiotic treatment could be life-saving for people exposed to anthrax, Harvard officials noted in a press release. Five people died and 17 more were sickened by anthrax spores sent through the mail in the fall of 2001. The poll results were released today, just as the FBI formally announced the end of its investigation of the attacks.
In the national poll, conducted in December, 89% of respondents said they would probably follow recommendation to get antibiotics from a dispensing site after an anthrax attack. Ninety-one percent of parents who were polled said they would get the medications for their children.
However, of the adults who said they would get the antibiotics, only 57% said they would start taking them right away; 39% said they would wait, in most cases until they knew if they had been exposed. The responses of parents getting the drugs for their children closely matched those of the adults generally.
"It's concerning that some people will not take the antibiotics after picking them up at the dispensing site because such 'wait and see' behavior could put those who were exposed at greater risk for serious illness or even death in the event of this kind of anthrax attack," said Gillian SteelFisher, a Harvard research scientist and director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program.
If an anthrax attack occurred, more than 80% of those polled said they would worry about getting seriously ill or dying. Close to two thirds of the respondents (64%) said they would expect an anthrax attack to be part of a series of attacks rather than an isolated incident.
Among those who said they were unlikely or only "somewhat likely" to go to an antibiotic-dispensing site, the most commonly cited concern, mentioned by 45%, was that officials would be unable to control crowds.
Sixty-three percent of respondents voiced confidence in the government's ability to deliver antibiotics quickly to everyone in their city or town, while 36% lacked that confidence.
The survey also revealed that 21% of respondents were not at all familiar with the term "inhalation anthrax," and that 25% wrongly believed that inhalation anthrax is contagious, according to the Harvard release.
The poll included 1,092 nationally representative respondents, plus about 500 people each from three areas that experienced the anthrax attacks in 2001: Washington, DC; Trenton, N.J.; and New York City.
Responses from those three areas generally followed the national results, but they differed on two questions. People from Washington and Trenton were less likely to be unfamiliar with the term "inhalation anthrax." Also, respondents from all three areas were more likely than people nationwide to expect the event to be an isolated incident.
The government offered prophylactic antibiotics to thousands of postal workers in Washington, New Jersey, and New York City after the anthrax attacks in 2001. More than 3,800 workers took the drugs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported at the time.
Of more than 3,400 postal workers who took ciprofloxacin, 19% reported "severe" gastrointestinal side effects, and 14% reported fainting, dizziness, or lightheadedness, the CDC said.
Feb 19 Harvard press release
Nov 30, 2001, CIDRAP News story "Ciprofloxacin side effects ranged up to 19% in postal workers"