In Brief

In a study of the American public's response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the recent anthrax mailings and other disasters, researchers at Johns Hopkins University report that the American public did not react with panic to the troublesome events, but instead with effective and adaptive action--and could be a valuable response force in the event of another attack.

The study, which appears in the Jan. 15 issue of Clinical Infectious Diseases, recommends guidelines for government officials and other planners to limit panic and effectively manage the public during a bioterrorism attack:

  • Understand that public panic is rare and preventable. Public leaders can prevent panic by providing timely and accurate information and instructions so the public can make informed decisions.

"It is a myth that a community's first response to a crisis is panic," says Monica Schoch-Spana, PhD, study co-author and a senior fellow at Hopkins' Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies. "Although we do not know how people would respond in an unprecedented biological attack, we have found that people usually adapt to a situation based on the best information available, and they often try to assist one another through a crisis."

  • Recognize the public as an active participant in the attack response. Civic organizations, such as churches, charities and associations could be used to distribute information and medications and to monitor disease outbreaks.

  • Do not solely rely on the hospital system to care for the sick during a bioterrorism disaster. "Hospitals today operate on a 'just-in-time' principle to deliver care," says study co-author and epidemiologist Thomas Glass, PhD. "They do not have enough doctors, nurses, beds or equipment to care for a massive surge of patients. We will need to rely on volunteers and nonprofessionals to deliver some care, and use community groups."

  • Develop trust with the community. Leaders should encourage the public's input in biodefense planning and develop collaborative relationships with the media to ensure an open flow of information during an emergency.

"For a long time, biodefense planners have viewed the public as bystanders during a potential crisis, but the people will play a critical role during a bioterrorism attack," Glass adds. "Teaching people concrete and practical steps they can take to avoid becoming infected or infecting others will remain the first and most important line of defense in the aftermath of a bioterrorist attack."