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Classroom Activity

To help students learn more about the October 2001 anthrax attacks and their aftermath.

Materials for teacher
  • copy of the "Getting Informed" teacher sheet (PDF or HTML)
  1. When trying to help students learn more about the threat of bioterrorism, students of all ages should continue with normal routines. Students of different ages react differently to trauma depending upon their age. The American Psychological Association notes that it is important to learn what preconceptions teenagers may hold about the threat, and to help clear up any misinformation they may have. (See the "What Are Bioagents?" and "Who Says What" activities on your teacher sheet.) Some older children may benefit by engaging in activities in which they can make a personal contribution that will benefit others.

  2. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children should be allowed to express their fears and concerns. Keeping routines intact is important, as is letting students know that their caregivers, schoolteachers, local community leaders, and federal government are doing everything they can to protect children from harm. To help students understand this, have them do the "What's Being Done?" activity on your teacher sheet.

  3. Monitor students' reactions to discussions about anthrax and bioterrorism. If students seem to exhibit changes in their normal behavior, such as being overly aggressive or withdrawn, consider consulting with a mental health professional trained in trauma care about the students' behaviors. See "Whom to Contact" on the teacher sheet.

Activity Answer

In discussing anthrax with your students, it may be helpful to clarify some terms students may have heard but not fully understood. Bacteria are microscopic, single-celled organisms. Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that produced anthrax, attacks the body's cells and releases poisons known as toxins. The effects of these toxins are what causes death.

Doctors use substances called antibiotics to kill anthrax bacteria; however, antibiotics cannot neutralize the toxins once they have been released. Vaccines are used to produce immunity against disease. The anthrax vaccine uses dead anthrax bacteria to stimulate the body to produce antibodies against the disease.

The bioterrorism attacks on the United States in fall 2001 may have seemed to some like a new kind of warfare, but biological warfare is not new. It dates back centuries; one of the earliest uses occurred in the 6th century B.C. when the Assyrians poisoned enemy wells with rye ergot, a fungal disease.

Anthrax is a disease caused by the bacterium known as Bacillus anthracis, which resides inactive in soils. Warm-blooded animals such as cows, sheep, and goats can contract the disease by eating food contaminated with spores. It is rare to find infected animals in the United States. While anthrax can be infectious to humans, it cannot be transmitted from person to person.

Prior to the fall 2001 cases, the most recent case of inhalation anthrax in the United States was reported in 1976. This was one of only 18 cases of inhalation anthrax reported in the last 100 years. The risk of contracting any of the three types of anthrax remains very unlikely.






Cause of most anthrax infections; spores must come in contact with skin lesion or skin wound. By November 9, 2001, there were 7 confirmed cases.

The most severe of the types of anthrax. As of November 9, 2001, there were 10 confirmed cases of inhalation anthrax, with 4 resulting in death.

Brought on by consuming contaminated meat. No cases of intestinal anthrax have been reported in the past 50 years, as of November 9, 2001.


Begins as raised, itchy bump resembling an insect bite. Develops into a blister and then painless ulcer. Fever, swelling, and headache may follow. Presents characteristic black lesion.

May resemble a cold or flu virus, or a cough. Rapidly develops into severe breathing problems and total body function collapse.

Starts with nausea, appetite loss, vomiting, and fever, followed by abdominal pain, vomiting of blood, and severe diarrhea.


Wash hands, bandage wounds, and treat blisters.

Most inhalation anthrax exposures have occurred through mailed letters; students should report (and not open) any suspicious mail or other packages to an adult immediately.

Cook meat well.


antibiotics, both for adults and children

antibiotics, both for adults and children

antibiotics, both for adults and children


~20 percent

~90 percent

25 to 60 percent

Links and Books


Miller, Judith, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad. Germs. New York: Simon & Schuster: 2001.
Investigates U.S. and Soviet development of germ warfare during the Cold War, and exposes current bioterror risks and lack of preparedness for biowarfare in the United States.


Boyer, Peter G. "The Ames Strain." The New Yorker; November 12, 2001, pp 66-75.
Describes how the anthrax strain known as the Ames strain may have originated in spores from a single cow in Iowa, and how and why it proliferated in germ laboratories.

Preston, Richard. "The Demon in the Freezer." The New Yorker; July 12, 1999, pp. 44-61.
Explores smallpox, the history of the virus, attempts to eradicate the illness, its transmission and recurrence in 1972, and its legitimacy as a biowarfare threat.

Web Sites

NOVA Online—Bioterror
Includes information on the eight lethal biological agents that may pose the greatest threats of biowarfare, answers to frequently asked questions, a timeline of the history of biological warfare, an online activity about making vaccines, and more.

Anthrax Information
Provides information about anthrax and the current public health emergency response as well as health alerts, advisories, and updates from the Centers for Disease Control.

Anthrax and Bioterrorism Tutorial
This audiovisual tutorial walks you through general background information about anthrax, such as types of anthrax, symptoms, and treatment.

Join cartoon characters Tim and Moby for a quick lesson about anthrax. As Tim calms Moby's fears about the threat of anthrax, he may calm your fears, too.

Handling Anxiety in the Face of the Anthrax Scare
The American Psychological Association offers advice on how to deal with anxiety in the face of the anthrax scare. Help your students put the threat in perspective.

Helping Students Heal: How Teachers Can Help
Explains how teachers can help their students deal with the aftermath of the national tragedy.

Learn About Anthrax
Explains the basic facts about anthrax and provides follow-up discussion questions to share with your class.

Researchers Discover Secrets of Anthrax's Killer Toxin
Summarizes results of two recent research papers about the mechanism by which anthrax toxin destroys cells.


The "Getting Informed" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards:

Grades 5-8

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

Science Standard F:
Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

Risks and benefits

  • Risk analysis considers the type of hazard and estimates the number of people likely to suffer consequences. The results are used to determine the options for reducing or eliminating risks.

  • Important personal and social decisions are made based on perceptions of benefits and risks.

Science and technology in society

  • Societal challenges often inspire questions for scientific research, and social priorities often influence research priorities through the availability of funding for research.

Grades 9-12

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

Science Standard F:
Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

Personal and community health

  • The severity of disease symptoms is dependent upon many factors, such as human resistance and the virulence of the disease-producing organism. Many diseases can be prevented, controlled, or cured.

Science and technology in local, national, and global challenges

  • Progress in science and technology can be affected by social issues and challenges. Funding priorities for specific health problems serve as examples of ways that social issues influence science and technology.

Teacher's Guide

Video is not required for this activity