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NYC Hazards: Disease Outbreaks & Biological Events

Disease Outbreaks & Biological Events

New York City regularly monitors and responds to disease outbreaks and biological events. The City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has a state-of-the-art, 24/7 system for monitoring disease patterns. The "syndromic surveillance" system involves routinely tracking emergency room visits, ambulance runs and pharmacy sales to provide an early warning signal of a possible outbreak. It is one of the first in the nation and is a model for the rest of the country.

In addition to naturally occurring disease outbreaks, certain biological agents may be used by terrorists to cause illness or death. These agents include microbes, such as bacteria or viruses, or toxins derived from plants or animals.

In the event of a health emergency, the City may open Points of Dispensing (PODs), which are special clinics to distribute antibiotics or vaccines. If PODs are activated, you may locate the one closest to you by listening to local media, call 311 (TTY: 212-504-4115), visit 311 online or accessing


  • Cover coughs and sneezes.
  • Stay home if experiencing cough or fever.
  • Frequently wash hands with soap or an alcohol-based cleaner.
  • Tune in to local TV and radio for health officials' announcements.

Potential Public Health Threats to NYC


  • Pandemic flu: The Health Department tracks signs and symptoms that could indicate a flu pandemic. Flu outbreaks are prevented by the promotion of good, regular hygiene and flu shots for people whose immune systems are compromised. For more information, visit
    Pandemic Influenza Resources

  • Avian Flu: Avian (bird) influenza (flu) is a strain of the flu virus that primarily infects birds. H5N1, the strain of bird flu detected in Asia and Europe, has been transmitted from infected birds to people in Asia. Approximately 120 people have been infected since 2003. Currently, the disease does not readily spread from person to person. However, there is concern that H5N1 may eventually mutate and spread among people. As a result, health and government agencies around the world are carefully monitoring avian flu activity. The City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is developing plans for the possibility of avian flu in New York City, as well as readying hospitals, educating doctors, and providing information to New Yorkers.
    Avian Flu Resources

  • Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS): Caused by a virus, SARS is characterized by high fever, headache, cough, and breathing difficulties, which in some patients can be severe or even fatal. Transmission of the disease occurs when persons come into contact with infected droplets, expelled by coughing, or with contaminated materials and surfaces. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) has been watching for cases since the outbreak began in early 2003. There have been no laboratory positive cases, nor has there been any evidence of spread to health care workers or household members, nor evidence of community spread of SARS in New York City. DOHMH works closely with hospitals and medical providers to increase their knowledge about SARS and to help them identify any cases.
    SARS fact sheet

  • West Nile Virus: A mosquito-borne virus that can cause serious health conditions including encephalitis and meningitis, West Nile is most prevalent during peak mosquito season, June 1-Oct. 31. The City closely monitors suspected cases of the disease in humans, and has a vigorous prevention and monitoring program.
    West Nile Virus fact sheet


  • Anthrax: Caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, Anthrax is a disease commonly found in livestock, but has been manufactured for use as a bioterror weapon. There are three primary forms of the Anthrax infection. Cutaneous Anthrax is an infection of the skin caused by external exposure to Anthrax spores. It is treatable with antibiotics and does not typically lead to death. Inhalation Anthrax is a much more severe form of the disease, caused by breathing the spores into the lungs resulting in flu-like symptoms and eventually worsening and often fatal unless treatment is received. The third form of anthrax occurs upon ingestion, and is extremely rare.
    Anthrax fact sheet

  • Smallpox: A virus similar to Chickenpox, Smallpox causes high fever and rash and has a high fatality rate of around one in three. The disease is contagious, but is no longer a naturally-occurring threat thanks to the production of vaccines that have eliminated its spread. Because the United States stopped widespread Smallpox vaccinations in the 1970s, most people no longer carry immunity against the disease, making it an attractive tool to terrorists desiring to cause widespread illness and panic in a population.
    Smallpox fact sheet

More Resources

Preparing for a Public Health Emergency (NYC Department of Health)
Information and FAQs on Various Biological Threats (NYC Department of Health)
Information and FAQs on Pandemic Influenza (NYC Department of Health)