Campus & Community

Bioterror poll finds public wary, not panicked

4 min read

School of Public Health researchers will be taking the country’s temperature on bioterror in the coming weeks in an effort to track what Americans so far have taken pretty much in stride, according to the first survey published last week (Nov. 8).

Last week’s School of Public Health/Robert Wood Johnson “Survey Project on American’s Response to Biological Terrorism,” found that Americans are more concerned about getting the flu or being in a car accident than they are of coming down with anthrax.

The poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent, showed that 73 percent thought they or someone in their immediate family was very likely or somewhat likely to get the flu in the next 12 months, compared with 41 percent who said they might get in a car accident and just 9 percent who thought it very or somewhat likely they’d contract anthrax.

Project Director Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and management, said he thought the survey shows that Americans are doing a pretty good job of assessing the risk.

“The bulk of the country … is not doing the kind of things they do when they’re panicked,” Blendon said, adding that a lot of people are confident that if they get anthrax, they’ll be cured. “I think people have been paying attention to the number of cases and that a significant number of cases were curable.”

Blendon said he expects to continue polling every two to three weeks. If the situation worsens, he said, this early period of relatively low-levels of anthrax infection can serve as a baseline for viewing changes in public perception.

The survey, which polled 1,015 adults by phone between Oct. 24 and 28, will help public health and public safety officials – who are often immersed in the emergency – gain perspective on how the situation is viewed across the country.

“The government only sees the emergency. If you’re at the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], you’re only dealing with postal workers and with Congress. You assume the rest of the country is tearing around in panic,” Blendon said. “This is literally something we are doing to help public health professionals and people in government have perspective.”

While last week’s results show that Americans are not panicking over the anthrax cases, it does show we’re concerned. More than half of respondents, 57 percent, did take one or more precautions in response to the bioterrorism episodes, such as precautions when opening the mail and maintaining emergency supplies of food, water, or clothing. The reaction doesn’t appear to be extreme, however, as only 13 percent report taking three or more precautions and 43 percent said they’ve done nothing.

Those in families with postal workers were more likely to believe they or someone close to them would contract anthrax, with 32 percent saying it was very or somewhat likely. The survey also shows that Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in their local fire department (61 percent) and state and local police departments (53 percent), while 77 percent said they had a great deal or quite a lot of trust in their own doctor. Survey results are available on the Web at

Blendon said he expects to put out periodic reports that summarize not only the results of his frequent polls, but the results of other polls conducted on the subject.

“For a variety of reasons, the government doesn’t do these kinds of polls. It’s important for them to have an independent source of what people think,” Blendon said.

And when it’s all done, Blendon said, this is one project he won’t mind seeing go away.

“This is an area I hope I never poll on again. The minute this stops, we stop,” Blendon said.