Disease Outbreak

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DiseaseHealth emergencies may occur naturally (more likely) or as the result of intentional actions by a person or persons who wish to harm others. Each health emergency will differ in the population of people affected, the number of people affected, and the type and severity of illness in the affected persons.

Many health emergencies are the result of infectious diseases. Infectious diseases are caused by microbes, including bacteria, viruses, fungi or protozoa. To cause disease, a microbe must enter a person’s body. Though there are multiple methods for microbes to enter the body, the most frequent routes of microbe entry are through the lungs, ingestion, mucous membranes (eyes, nose or mouth), and contact with injured skin.

Typically, when a microbe enters a person’s body, the person’s immune system works to fight it off and prevent infection. If the immune system is unsuccessful and the microbe encounters an environment favorable for growth, the person will likely develop an infection. Types of viral illnesses that may be considered health emergencies, depending on the situation, include influenza (flu), measles, SARS, West Nile Virus, and an intentional release of smallpox. Types of bacterial illness that may be considered health emergencies include bacterial meningitis, botulism (caused by a bacterial toxin), and anthrax. Bacterial illness can usually be successfully treated with antibiotics. Some microbes can be spread from person to person while others require direct contact with the primary source.

Other types of health emergencies could be related to non-infectious processes, such as chemicals, radiation or natural disasters. For more information about health emergencies and emergency response, visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (

What to do during a health emergency:

  • Don’t panic. Listen to radio and television reports to learn what actions have been recommended
  • Stay home until directed to do otherwise by officials
  • If you need immediate medical attention for a life threatening emergency, call 911

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