Press Releases

2001 Releases

Survey Shows Americans Not Panicking over Anthrax, but Starting to Take Steps to Protect Themselves Against Possible Bioterrorist Attacks

For immediate release:  November 08, 2001
  • Members of postal worker households significantly more worried about contracting anthrax
  • Americans show weak trust of various public officials in biological crisis

BOSTON, MA – The first in a series of surveys by the Harvard School of Public Health/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Survey Project on Americans' Response to Biological Terrorism finds that most Americans think they and their families have a relatively low risk of contracting anthrax or smallpox. Americans believe it is far more likely that they or someone in their immediate family will get the flu (73% very or somewhat likely), or be injured in a fall (50%) or automobile accident (41%) during the next 12 months than that they will contract anthrax (14%) or smallpox (9%) (Figure 1). 

However, about one-third (32%) of Americans from households where someone works for the U.S. Postal Service believe that they or someone in their family are very or somewhat likely to contract anthrax. Also, while only one-quarter (25%) of the public reports being very or somewhat worried about contracting anthrax though the mail at home or at work, more than half (56%) of Americans from postal worker households are worried about this threat (Figure 2).

Although most Americans think they are at relatively low risk of contracting anthrax or smallpox, a majority (57%) have taken one or more precautions in response to reports of bioterrorism. A substantial number report taking precautions when opening the mail (37%) and maintaining emergency supplies of food, water, or clothing (25%). It does not appear that Americans are panicking in their response to recent bioterrorist threats, as only 13% report taking three or more of 12 precautions, and 43% report doing none of them (Figure 3).

"Americans are not at the moment panicking about anthrax, but most are starting to take some sensible precautions," says Robert J. Blendon, professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Many are being more careful with their mail and maintaining emergency supplies of food, water, or clothing, an action people often take to prepare for possible emergencies."

At the present time, most Americans are optimistic about treatment for anthrax. The majority believe they would be very or somewhat likely to survive with appropriate medical treatment were they to contract the skin or inhaled form of anthrax. They are slightly more likely to believe they would survive the skin form (91%) of the disease than the inhaled form (78%). One reason we are not seeing panic may be that most Americans believe that anthrax is not generally fatal with appropriate medical treatment.

The survey found no national figure trusted by a majority of the public as a source of reliable information during a national outbreak of disease caused by bioterrorism. Americans are more likely to trust public health officials and physicians than appointees who do not have such backgrounds. The public reports having a great deal or quite a lot of trust in medical figures, including the Director of the CDC (48%), the U.S. Surgeon General (44%), and the President of the AMA (42%), but lower levels for senior appointees without medical backgrounds, such as the Secretaries of Health and Human Services (37%) and Homeland Security (34%), and the Director of the FBI (33%) (Figure 4).

On the local level, a majority express a great or quite a lot of trust in the directors of their local fire department (61%), their state or local police department (53%), and their state or local health department (52%) as sources of reliable information in the event of an outbreak in their local community. The fire department leadership on the local level rated the highest. Three-fourths (77%) of the public has a great deal or quite a lot of trust in their own doctor, which speaks to the importance of educating physicians about bioterrorist threats (Figure 5).

The complete report may be viewed at:


Figures are available by fax upon request.

For further information, please contact:

Robin Herman 
Office of Communications 
Harvard School of Public Health 
677 Huntington Avenue 
Boston, MA 02115 
Phone: 617-432-4752 

This survey, the first in a series by The Harvard School of Public Health/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Survey Project on Americans' Response to Biological Terrorism, was designed and analyzed by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health. The project director is Robert J. Blendon of the Harvard School of Public Health. The research team also includes John M. Benson and Catherine M. DesRoches of the Harvard School of Public Health, and Melissa J. Herrmann of ICR/International Communication Research. Fieldwork was conducted via telephone for the Project by ICR/International Communications Research of Media (PA) between October 24 and October 28, 2001. The survey included a nationally representative random sample of 1,015 adults age 18 and over. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Harvard School of Public Health is dedicated to advancing the public's health through learning, discovery, and communication. More than 300 faculty members are engaged in teaching and training the 800-plus student body in a broad spectrum of disciplines crucial to the health and well being of individuals and populations around the world. Programs and projects range from the molecular biology of AIDS vaccines to the epidemiology of cancer; from risk analysis to violence prevention; from maternal and children's health to quality of care measurement; from health care management to international health and human rights.