What is a Public Health Emergency?


Public health emergencies are events that pose a significant threat to the health and well-being of a large population. These emergencies can take various forms, including natural disasters, acts of terrorism, disease outbreaks, foodborne illnesses, and pandemics. Leadership must ensure that there is sustained public health and medical preparedness within our communities in defense against public health threats.

As you plan for a public health emergency, think about the challenges you might face. You may need to make a declaration for a state of emergency. The following are some challenges you may face:

  • Widespread illness could result in the shutdown of ATMs and banks.

  • Stores may close or have limited supplies.

  • Food and water supplies may be interrupted or experience temporary shortages.

  • Transportation and public transportation services may be disrupted or unavailable.

  • Public gatherings may be canceled.

  • Business may be interrupted at your place of employment.

  • Hospitals and doctors’ offices may be overwhelmed.

  • Schools may be closed or canceled to limit the spread of infection in the community.

Biological Agents

Infectious Diseases are caused by the invasion of the body by harmful microorganisms, such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi. These pathogens can spread through various means, including person-to-person contact, insect or animal vectors, and contaminated air, water, food, or soil. Emerging infectious diseases may be entirely new, newly introduced to an area, reappearing after a period of absence, or caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Contagious Diseases are a subset of infectious diseases that can be transmitted from person to person. Exposure typically occurs through contact with bodily fluids or secretions, such as respiratory droplets from a sneeze. Understanding the modes of transmission is crucial in developing effective public health strategies to prevent and control the spread of contagious diseases.

Toxins are poisonous substances, often protein-based, produced by microorganisms like bacteria, molds, and viruses. These toxins act as weapons, attacking organs or cells in the body. While toxins are generally biologically produced, the term "chemical toxins" is commonly used in everyday language to refer to poisons created by non-living chemical agents.

Specific Threats

Anthrax, caused by Bacillus anthracis bacteria, can affect the skin, lungs, or digestive system. Anthrax spores, which can live dormant in the environment for years, pose a bioterrorism threat when deliberately released.

Botulism, resulting from the potent toxin produced by Clostridium botulinum bacteria, affects the nervous system and can lead to paralysis and death. While not contagious, botulism can be foodborne, infantile, or associated with wounds. The potential for deliberate spread through bioterrorism adds complexity to its prevention.

Radiation, present everywhere in various forms, can have harmful effects on health. Daily exposure to natural and man-made sources necessitates awareness and monitoring. Understanding the sources and types of radiation is crucial for managing its potential health risks.

Public health emergencies include a wide range of threats, from infectious diseases to bioterrorism and radiation. Rapid and effective response strategies, including surveillance, communication, and preventive measures, are essential to lessen the impact of these emergencies on the health of communities. Understanding these threats equips Federal, state, and county leadership to better prepare for and respond to public health emergencies. For more information on health care and best management practices during a public health emergency, visit the QuickSeries™ library.