Anthrax: Causes, treatments, and risks

Anthrax is caused by infection with Bacillus anthracis, a hardy, spore-forming bacterium that can survive in extreme conditions for a long time. The bacterium is highly toxic.

Anthrax infection is not common in the United States.
Anthrax infection is rare in the United States, but not uncommon elsewhere.

Anthrax is common in livestock, and a potentially serious infectious disease in humans. The spores occur naturally in soil, but anthrax only becomes active when it enters the body.

Bacillus anthracis (B. anthracis) gained notoriety as a biological weapon in the 2001 in the United States (U.S.), when anthrax powder was mailed in packages, leading to 22 cases of infection, including 5 fatalities.

However, the disease is not unusual in the agricultural regions of the Caribbean, central and southwestern Asia, Central and South America, southern and eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. How dangerous it is depends on the type.

It is rare in the U.S., but outbreaks occur very occasionally in grazing animals such as deer. It is more likely in countries that do not routinely vaccinate animals against the disease.

It cannot pass from one human to another.

Fast facts on anthrax:

Here are some key points about anthrax. More detail is in the main article.

Anthrax is a potentially fatal bacterial infection that is rare in the U.S. but more common elsewhere.

There are four types, depending on how it is transmitted.

Anthrax can be spread through animals and animal products.

Treatment is with antibiotics, which must be started soon after infection.

There is a possibility that anthrax could be used as a biological weapon.

A vaccine exists for people who are at risk, but not for the general public.

What is anthrax?

B. anthracis bacteria produce resilient spores that can cause a potentially deadly infection in people and animals.

There are four different forms of anthrax infection:

cutaneous

inhalation

gastrointestinal

injection

Each type is caused by the B. anthracis bacteria entering the human body in a different way. Each route of entry leads to a unique set of symptoms.

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Anthrax could be used as a bioterror weapon because it is easy to produce.
Anthrax could be used as a bioterror weapon because it is easy to produce.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if a biological attack were to occur, the anthrax bacteria is “one of the most likely agents.”

There are several reasons for this, for example:

anthrax is easy to find in nature and easy to grow in labs

an attack would be hard to detect

it has previously been used as a weapon

Federal agencies and health departments in the U.S. work together to ensure preparedness for such an event. However, they would not know it had happened until a pattern of infection emerged. This is because it is rare, symptoms take a while to show, and they are also similar to symptoms of other conditions, such as flu.

Symptoms

Each form of anthrax has its own range of symptoms. For most forms, the symptoms appear within a week of exposure to B. anthracis, but the symptoms of inhalation anthrax can take over a month to develop.

Cutaneous anthrax

The most common form of anthrax is cutaneous anthrax.

The symptoms are as follows:

small itchy blisters or bumps

a painless swollen sore with a black center

swelling in nearby lymph glands and tissue

This is considered the mildest form. With treatment, it is rarely deadly. Without treatment, it may be fatal in 20 percent of cases.

Gastrointestinal anthrax

This can come from eating raw or undercooked meat from an infected animal.

The symptoms of gastrointestinal anthrax are:

abdominal pain and swelling

diarrhea

fainting

fever and chills

flushing face and red eyes

headache

loss of appetite

nausea and vomiting

sore throat with painful swallowing

swelling of neck and neck glands

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