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What is Anthrax?

Anthrax, pronounced as (anthraks), is an acute infectious disease caused by the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis. This rod-shaped microbe grows in soil, where it can be ingested by sheep, cows, horses and goats. Anthrax most commonly occurs in warm-blooded animals, but can also infect humans. Anthrax spores can be produced in a dry form (for biological warfare) which may be stored and ground into particles. When inhaled by humans, these particles cause respiratory failure and death within a week.

Transmission to humans normally occurs through contact with infected animals but can also occur through breathing air laden with the spores of the bacilli. The disease is usually restricted to individuals who handle hides of animals (farmers, butchers, and veterinarians) or sort wool.

There are three main types of anthrax: cutaneous, respiratory, and intestinal.

Cutaneous: Most anthrax infections occur when the bacterium enters a cut or abrasion on the skin. Deaths are rare with appropriate antimicrobial therapy.

More on Cutaneous Anthrax

Respiratory: Anthrax infection in the respiratory system (contracted by breathing infected particles). Respiratory anthrax usually results in death in 1-2 days after onset of the acute symptoms.

More on Respiratory Anthrax

Intestinal: Anthrax infection of the intestinal tract. It usually occurs following the consumption of contaminated meat. It is characterized by an acute inflammation of the intestinal tract.

Symptoms of Anthrax

Symptoms of anthrax an individual may experience vary depending upon the type of exposure.

Skin exposure: (Cutaneous Anthrax) a boil-like lesion appears on the hands, face, and neck. These lesions eventually forms a black center. A swelling of the lymph gland under the arm may occur. The cutaneous form of anthrax is not usually fatal to humans

Respiratory exposure: (Pulmonary Anthrax) symptoms might resemble the common cold and may progress to severe breathing problems and possibly death. Pulmonary anthrax causes lesions in the lungs and brain.

Symptoms of anthrax usually appear within 7 days of exposure.

What Causes Anthrax?

Anthrax is caused by a bacillus (Bacillus anthracis) that primarily affects sheep, horses, hogs, cattle, and goats. Since anthax largely affects sheep, horses, hogs, cattle and goats, it is labeled a veterinary disease. Anthrax is almost always fatal in animals.

How is Anthrax Spread?

Humans can become infected with anthrax by inhaling contaminated soil particles (anthrax can live in soil for years) or by handling wool or hair from diseased animals. Infection of the intestinal tract can occur by eating undercooked meat from diseased animals.

Effects of Anthrax

The inhaled form of anthrax (pulmonary anthrax) is rare and extremely deadly. Studies of previous cases indicate that a dose of 2,500 to 55,000 anthrax spores is lethal to about half of the people who inhale them. The first stage of anthrax infection, lasting from hours to a few days, involves flu-like symptoms, including fever, coughing, weakness and chest pains.

The second stage usually ends in death within days. Lung damage deprives the body of oxygen. The victim then goes into shock. Brain infection may also occur.

Antibiotics only prove helpful at the earliest stages of the disease because they fight bacteria, not the toxins the bacteria produce in abundance.

The cutaneous form of anthrax is caused by the same germ but is contracted through the skin. Three to five days after infection, a painless blister appears. A day or two later, this becomes a black, open sore. Cutaneous anthrax accounts for 95 percent of anthrax cases in the United States, and is easily treated with antibiotics. Left untreated, perhaps 5 percent of cases progress to a dangerous bloodstream infection, which is almost always fatal.

Anthrax Treatment

Penicillin, tetracycline, erythromycin, or chloramphenicol and other antibiotics may be prescribed by your doctor. To be effective, treatment should be initiated early.

How is Anthrax diagnosed?

Anthrax is diagnosed by isolating the bacterium B. anthracis from the blood, skin lesions, or respiratory secretions. It is also diagnosed by measuring specific antibodies in the blood of persons with suspected cases.

Can Anthrax be prevented?

Anthrax vaccine is available for people in high-risk occupations. The spread of anthrax can be prevented by: carefully handle dead animals suspected of having anthrax; provide good ventilation when processing hides, fur, hair or wool; and vaccinate animals.

Anthrax in the news

In the worst-known anthrax outbreak, about 66 people died when spores were released from a bio weapons plant in Sverdlovsk, Russia, in 1979.

Because anthrax is considered to be a potential agent for use in biological warfare, the Department of Defense (DOD) announced that it will begin systematic vaccination of all U.S. military personnel.

Bad News about Anthrax

If not treated properly, anthrax can cause death.

Frequently asked Questions

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