Anthrax is a disease that is most often associated with the fear of biological warfare and terrorism. In the U.S., this fear escalated in 2001 when anthrax was sent by U.S. mail, infecting twenty-two people and killing five. While biological attack is always a possibility, people are more likely to come into contact with the disease in other ways, like through the food that they eat. Even then, actual infection from it is rare. Anthrax is most often found in grazing livestock. This deadly disease is known as a zoonosis, which means that it can be transmitted from animals to people. It is caused by Bacillus anthracis, which is a spore-forming bacterium that occurs in soil; however, it is rarely found in the soil in the United States.
There are four ways in which people can naturally become infected with anthrax. One of these ways is to consume meat from infected animals. This is known as gastrointestinal anthrax. Another form of infection is known as cutaneous anthrax, and it occurs when spores enter cuts in the skin during contact. Cutaneous anthrax makes up about ninety-five percent of anthrax infections. Inhalation anthrax occurs when a person becomes infected because he or she inhaled thousands of spores into the lungs. When a person uses a needle that is contaminated with spores, it is known as injection-related anthrax. This typically occurs as a person injects drugs and is the least common infection method. Most often, injection-related anthrax happens outside of the U.S.
People who are at high-risk of infection include military personnel and biomedical researchers. For people who are at this level of risk, scientists have developed an anthrax vaccine. The anthrax vaccine has not been approved for general use, however, as further testing is necessary for people with compromised immune systems, children, and also the elderly. If a person is infected, the symptoms can manifest in several ways. In some cases, sores with black centers or bumps that itch may develop, particularly with cutaneous anthrax. A person with gastrointestinal anthrax may become nauseated, develop a fever, vomit and have bloody diarrhea. Inhalation anthrax victims may feel as if they have the flu and/or experience chest pains. If treatment does not begin these symptoms may worsen, and the infected individual may go into shock or suffer from spinal and brain inflammation. For this reason, if a person believes that they have been exposed to anthrax, medical attention must be sought for an immediate diagnosis and treatment. Skin, blood and stool tests are all common methods of diagnosis as are spinal taps, chest x-rays and an endoscopy. If a person is diagnosed with anthrax, a sixty day prophylactic antibiotic treatment is necessary.
The fear that Anthrax could be used as a biological weapon is a very real threat and has been for over eighty years. Unlike natural infection, the bacterium has been developed specifically for the purpose of injuring and killing large groups of people. The most likely method of infection in a biological attack is inhalation due to its high rate of infection and fatality. Up to seventy-five percent of people diagnosed with inhalation anthrax die as a result.
Understanding anthrax and what causes it is the best way to quell any fears or concerns that one may have. The remainder of this article is a resource list leading to further information about anthrax, including its discovery by German physician Robert Koch. This article will also delve more thoroughly into facts about the disease, its causes, symptoms, preventive measures, diagnosis, and treatment. In addition, links leading to information about anthrax as a biological weapon are also included.
- Wiley – Interactive Concepts in Biochemistry: Anthrax History
- What is Anthrax?
- Federation of American Scientists: Anthrax Fact Sheet
- Illinois Department of Public Health: Anthrax
- Robert Koch: The First Man to Prove Bacillus Anthracis was the Direct Cause of a Disease
- The Noble Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1905 – Robert Koch
- Facts About Anthrax
- SIU School of Medicine: Anthrax – Bacteriology, Clinical Presentation and Management
- What is Anthrax and How Do You Catch It?
- What Causes Anthrax
- Medline Plus: Anthrax – Causes
- Mayo Clinic Anthrax: Causes
- BBC Health – What Causes it?
- WebMD: Anthrax Topic Overview
- Anthrax: The Agent, The Problem, The Research
- Fox News Anthrax Facts
Anthrax Signs & Symptoms
- Drexel University College of Medicine: Symptoms, Signs and Tests
- Virginia Tech Environmental Health and Safety: Anthrax – Signs and Symptoms
- Anthrax Bacillus Anthracis: Signs and Symptoms
- Austin Community College: Anthrax – Signs and Symptoms
- The Center for Food Security & Public Health – Iowa State University: Anthrax PDF
- American University: Anthrax
- CDC: Is There a Way to Prevent Infection?
- OSHA: Is There a Way to Prevent Infection?
- Clinical Issues in the Prophylaxis, Diagnosis, and Treatment of Anthrax
- Vaccines, Blood, & Biologics: Anthrax
- World Health Organization – Guidance on Anthrax: Frequently Asked Questions – How is it Treated or Prevented? Is There a Vaccine?
- The New York Times Health Guide – Prevention
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Anthrax Treatment
- Davidson College – Bacillus Anthracis: Treatment
- NYU Langone Medical Center: Anthrax – Treatment
- Cleveland Clinic: What is Anthrax? How is Anthrax Diagnosed and Treated
- Anthrax: Recognition/Diagnosis
- Raxibacumab: A Monoclonal Antibody to Treat Inhalation Anthrax
- Anthrax – The Threat is Real
- EPA: Cleanup of Anthrax Contamination in Danbury, Connecticut
- Anthrax Attack Response Needs Both Antibiotics, Vaccine
- The Anthrax Terror: DOD’s Number-One Biological Threat
- Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health – Anthrax
- Anthrax: An Agent of Biological Warfare
- Decontamination of Environments