Disease Outbreaks & Biological Events

A black and white photo of a mother caring for her ill child, who is lying in bed.

New York City regularly monitors and responds to disease outbreaks and biological events. The City's Department of Health & 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:

  • 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.
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 (212-639-9675 for Video Relay Service, or TTY: 212-504-4115), visit 311 online or accessing NYC.gov.

Pandemics & Biological Emergencies

A pandemic is a global disease outbreak. It is usually caused by a new version of a virus (like the influenza virus) that affects humans. If this situation occurs, the outbreak could require you to take actions to protect yourself and your family.

A biological emergency involves the exposure to bacteria and viruses that can cause a serious illness. Usually, these biological agents must be inhaled, absorbed through the skin, or eaten to make you sick.

  • Pandemic flu is caused by a virus that is "novel" (new) or different from flu viruses that circulated previously. Pandemics can cause serious illness in humans and spreads easily from person to person.
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  • West Nile virus is a mosquito-borne virus that can cause encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) or meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord). West Nile virus is spread to humans by the bite of an infected mosquito.
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  • Anthrax is caused by the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis. It is an infectious disease that most commonly occurs in wild and domestic livestock (such as cattle, sheep and goats), but infections can occur in humans as well.
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  • Smallpox is a virus that used to cause one of the most feared illnesses in history. Because the United States stopped widespread smallpox vaccinations in the 1970s, most people no longer carry immunity against the disease; any re-introduction of smallpox could result in a global pandemic.
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  • Burkholderia: Melioidosis and Glanders are infectious diseases caused by the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei or Pseudomonas pseudomallei. These harmful bacteria are found in unsanitary water or moist soil. They are transmitted to animals and humans by ingestion or inhalation.
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  • Plague is a potentially severe disease caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pestis.
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  • Botulism is a serious illness caused by an extremely powerful poison called botulinum toxin that paralyzes the muscles. The toxin is produced by a bacterium called Clostridium botulinum. Botulism cannot be spread from person to person.
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  • Ebola is a severe, often fatal disease that affects humans and some animals (monkeys, gorillas and chimpanzees). It is caused by the Ebola virus. The chances of the average New Yorker getting Ebola are extremely low; however, a healthcare worker tested positive for Ebola after returning to New York City from Guinea on October 23, 2014. The patient was treated at Bellevue Medical Center in Manhattan and is now free of the virus. He was discharged on November 11, 2014 and poses no public health risk.
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  • Zika is a virus. People usually get Zika through a mosquito bite, but not a bite from any mosquito. It is rare but possible for Zika to spread from one person to another through sexual contact and blood. Zika is not spread from person to person by casual contact.
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