Mass casualty management of a large-scale bioterrorist event: An epidemiological approach that shapes triage decisions

Frederick M. Burkle

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

65 Scopus citations


The threat of a BT event has catalyzed serious reflection on the troublesome issues that come with event management and triage. Such reflection has had the effect of multiplying the efforts to find solutions to what could become a catastrophic public health disaster. Management options are becoming more robust, as are reliable detection devices and rapid access to stockpiled antibiotics and vaccines. There is much to be done, however, especially in the organizing, warehousing, and granting/exercising authority for resource allocations. The introduction of these new options should encourage one to believe that, in time, evolving standards of care will make it possible to rethink the currently unthinkable consequences. Unfortunately the cost of such preparedness is high and out of reach of most governments. Most of the developing world has neither the will nor the means to plan for BT events and remains overwhelmed with basic public health concerns (ie, water, food, sanitation, shelter) that must take priority. Therefore, developed countries will be expected to respond using international exogenous resources to mitigate the effects of such a disaster. As a result, the state capacity of the effected government will be severely compromised. If triage and management of casualties is further compromised, terrorists will have met their goals. One could argue that health sciences will continue for decades to play catch up with the advanced technology driving potential bioagent weaponry. If one lesson was learned from the review of the former Soviet Union's biological weapons program, it is that the unthinkable remains an option to terrorists who have comparable expertise. It is crucial to develop realistic strategies for a BT event. Triage planning (the process of establishing criteria for health care prioritization) permits society to see cases in the context of diverse moral perspectives, limited resources, and compelling health care demands. This includes a competent and compassionate management and triage system and an in-depth and accurate health information system that appropriately addresses every level of threat or consequence. In a PICE stage I to III BT event resources will be compromised. Triage and management will be one process requiring multiple levels of cooperation, coordination, and decision-making. An immediate challenge to existing emergency medical services systems (EMSS) is the recognition that locally there will be a shift of emphasis and decision-making from prehospital first responders to community public health authorities. The author suggests that a working relationship, in most areas, between EMSS and the public health system is lacking. As priorities shift in a BT event to hospitals and public health care systems, they need to: 1. Improve their capabilities and capacities in surveillance, discovery, and in the consequences of different triage and management decisions and interventions in a BT environment, starting at the local level. 2. Develop triage and management systems (with clear lines of authority) based on public health and epidemiologic requirements, capability, and capacity (triage teams, categories, tags, rapid response, established operational priorities, resource-driven responsible management process), and link local level surveillance systems with those at the national or regional level. 3. Use a triage and management system that reflects the population (cohort) at risk, such as the epidemiologic based SEIRV triage framework. 4. Develop an organizational capacity that uses lateral decision-making skills, pre-hospital outpatient centers for triage-specific treatments, health information systems, and resource-driven hospital level pre-designated protocols appropriate for a surge of unprecedented proportions. Such standards of care, it is recommended, should be set at the local to federal levels and spelled out in existing incident-management system protocols.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)409-436
Number of pages28
JournalEmergency Medicine Clinics of North America
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2002
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Emergency Medicine


Dive into the research topics of 'Mass casualty management of a large-scale bioterrorist event: An epidemiological approach that shapes triage decisions'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this