Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

NOVA Online (see text links below)
Bioterror  

Botulism C. botulinum produces the potent nerve toxin that causes botulism.
Agents of Bioterror
Botulism

incubation period | symptoms | how it would spread | treatment | vaccine

Botulinum toxin is the most poisonous substance known. It is derived from bacteria called Clostridium botulinum. A number of countries have developed or are developing the toxin as a bioweapon. Experts consider it a major threat because of its lethality and relative ease of production. However, the well-financed Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo tried to spray aerosols of the toxin at least three times without success.

Botulism is the disease triggered when the toxin gets absorbed through the gut, lungs, or an open wound. It does not penetrate skin. The toxin affects neurotransmitters, causing permanent nerve damage, paralysis, and when untreated, respiratory failure and death. Natural cases of botulism are rare and typically result from contamination of home-canned foods.


Incubation period before symptoms
Generally 12-72 hours


Symptoms
  • nausea and vomiting (occurs in natural cases when bacteria are ingested; may not appear if purified toxin is spread on food)
  • difficulty speaking, seeing, and/or swallowing
  • drooping eyelids
  • muscle weakness starting in the trunk and moving to the limbs
  • muscle paralysis and difficulty breathing

How it would be spread
Aerosol or food. The disease is not contagious.


Treatment
An antitoxin, available in the U.S. from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stops progression of the disease and can prevent onset of disease following exposure.


Vaccine
No vaccine is available for the general public. An investigational vaccine is available for the military and lab workers.



Anthrax   Botulism   Cholera   Glanders


Plague   Q Fever   Smallpox   Tularemia

Chart of the 8 agents



Photo: Photo Researchers

Printer-Friendly Format   Feedback

History of Biowarfare | Future Germ Defenses
Interviews with Biowarriors | Global Guide to Bioweapons | Making Vaccines
Resources | Teacher's Guide | Transcript | Site Map | Bioterror Home

Search | Site Map | Previously Featured | Schedule | Feedback | Teachers | Shop
Join Us/E-Mail | About NOVA | Editor's Picks | Watch NOVAs online | To print
PBS Online | NOVA Online | WGBH

© | Updated November 2001
 

Support provided by

For new content
visit the redesigned
NOVA site

Shop Teachers Feedback Schedule Previously Featured Site Map Search NOVA Home