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Most Americans Not Personally Worried About Anthrax

by David W. Moore

But believe recent incidents involving anthrax are beginning of sustained campaign


PRINCETON, NJ -- A new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted this past weekend finds that two-thirds of Americans are not worried about being exposed to anthrax and that eight out of 10 feel it is not likely that they or a family member will be a victim of anthrax. At the same time, about half say that the anthrax incidents are the beginning of a sustained terrorist campaign. About a quarter of Americans say they are now using more caution in handling the mail, and many more are seriously considering it, although only a very small percentage of Americans have sought out antibiotics or vaccines. A substantial majority believes the news media are overreacting to the threat, although Americans are divided on whether the public in general is overreacting or reacting about right. Most think the shutdown of the U.S. House of Representatives last week due to threats of anthrax was an appropriate reaction. The poll also shows widespread confidence in the ability of the federal government to respond to the health threats that would be posed by a major outbreak of anthrax or smallpox.

Public is Jittery, But Not Panicked

According to the poll, about a third of the public, 34%, is either "very" (7%) or "somewhat" (27%) worried that they, or someone in their family, will be exposed to anthrax. By comparison, immediately after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 58% of Americans said they were worried about being the victim of a terrorist attack.

How worried are you that you or someone in your family will be exposed to anthrax -- very worried, somewhat worried, not too worried, or not worried at all?
Oct. 19-21, ‘01

Fewer people say it is likely they will be exposed to anthrax than are worried about it. The poll shows that only 4% say it is "very" likely, and another 16% say "somewhat" likely, that they or someone in their family will be exposed.

How likely is it that you or someone in your family will be exposed to anthrax -- very likely, somewhat likely, not too likely, or not at all likely?
Oct. 19-21, ‘01

There are some differences by region of country in response to this question. Twenty-eight percent of those living in the East (where all of the anthrax exposures to date have occurred) say that it is at least somewhat likely that they will be exposed to anthrax, compared to 16% in the Midwest, 21% in the South, and 13% in the West.

Few Have Taken Steps to Thwart Possible Anthrax Exposure

Reflecting the perceived low likelihood of being exposed to anthrax, few Americans have taken preventative steps to avoid such exposure. About a quarter, 23%, say they have already begun to handle their mail more cautiously, and another 30% say they are seriously considering doing so. But only 2% to 3% have taken a variety of other steps mentioned in the poll, including discussing such matters with a doctor, trying to get a prescription for antibiotics, trying to get a vaccination for anthrax or smallpox, and purchasing a gas mask or other protective clothing.

Next, I'm going to read you some things people may do because of their concern about terrorism. For each one, please tell me if it is something you have done, something you are seriously considering, something you are not seriously considering, or something you haven't even thought about. How about -- ?
Oct. 19-21, ‘01

Widespread Confidence in Government to Deal With Terrorism

Despite their relatively low level of worry about personal exposure to anthrax, a majority of Americans, 52%, believe that the recent incidents involving anthrax represent the beginning of a sustained bioterrorism campaign against the United States, while 38% disagree. About the same percentage, 55%, believed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 represented the beginning of a sustained terrorist campaign against the United States, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted the night of the attacks.

Do you think the recent incidents involving anthrax do -- or do not -- represent the beginning of a sustained campaign against the U.S. involving anthrax?



Do represent

Do not represent

No opinion


2001 Oct 19-21




If there is a sustained anthrax attack in the days or weeks ahead, most Americans believe the government will be able to respond effectively. The poll shows that 34% are "very" confident, and another 43% "somewhat" confident. Only one in five are either "not too" (17%) or "not at all" (5%) confident. There is less public confidence in the ability of the government to handle the health risks associated with a major outbreak of smallpox or a nuclear attack.




2001 Oct 19-21

Very Confident

Somewhat Confident

Total Confident

Total Not Confident

A major outbreak of anthrax





A major outbreak of smallpox





A nuclear attack





News Media Seen as overreacting, But Not Congress

Over the past week, news stories have been dominated by real and suspected cases of anthrax exposure. It has generated a debate over what constitutes appropriate news coverage and warnings on the one hand, and inappropriate stories that create concern and panic on the other. The weekend poll shows that Americans generally think the press has overreacted in its coverage of the anthrax incidents, by a 60% to 35% margin.

Do you think news media are -- overreacting, reacting about right, or underreacting -- to the threat of anthrax?
Oct. 19-21, ‘01

However, Americans are divided on whether the public in general is overreacting to the threat of anthrax -- 47% say it is and 45% say it is not.

Do you think Americans are -- overreacting, reacting about right, or underreacting -- to the threat of anthrax?
Oct. 19-21, ‘01

Last week, the House of Representatives chose to shut down when mail was discovered in several Congressional offices that had traces of anthrax in them. There has been some debate as to whether or not this was the appropriate action. By more than a two-to-one margin, Americans support the House leadership decision, saying that the U.S. House of Representatives' reaction was appropriate (69%) rather than an overreaction (29%).

As you may know, the U.S. House of Representatives shut down this week because of threats of anthrax. Would you say the U.S. House of Representatives overreacted, or did they react about right?
Oct. 19-21, ‘01

Among those who said that the general public, Congress or the media were overreacting, the vast majority also said that such overreactions are "giving the terrorists what they want."

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,006 adults nationwide, aged 18+, conducted Oct. 19-21, 2001. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.


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