With the increasing number of anthrax cases appearing in the U.S. as a result of bioterrorism, people are naturally concerned over how to protect themselves and their families. One of the most important ways to do this is to be well informed about the disease. Here is a brief overview of anthrax to help you understand the symptoms, how it is contracted and spread, what role vaccination plays, and how to protect yourself and your family.
It is a bacterium that has been around for millennia. It infects animals, mainly cattle and sheep. It can also survive in a spore form for decades. People most at risk were those that worked closely with cattle and sheep such as sheep-shearers and wool sorters. Eating raw meat was also a risk factor. Mass animal vaccination programs have greatly reduced this disease, and cases of anthrax are now very rare. The last known case of inhalation anthrax in the U.S. occurred in 1978.
This occurs when a person’s skin comes into contact with the bacteria. It mainly causes symptoms on the skin only, and responds well to treatment. This is by far the most common type of anthrax infection.
This occurs by inhaling several thousand spores. It occurs only very rarely because such a large exposure is needed to cause infection.
This occurs from ingesting the bacteria or spores through raw meat. This is also much less common than skin infection.
- this begins like an insect bite – an itchy bump. After one or two days it forms a blister. The blister then opens and a black, painless ulcer forms.
- this begins with nausea and vomiting. It progresses to abdominal pain, bloody vomiting, and severe bloody diarrhea.
- this begins as a common cold. As the infection spreads through the lungs, the cough and fever become increasingly worse, breathing becomes more and more difficult and shock sets in. This can progress rapidly over a few days or slowly over a few weeks.
The incubation period (time from exposure to symptoms) is 1 to 7 days.
While the bacteria themselves are quite dangerous, even more deadly is the toxin that they produce. This toxin attacks a person’s immune system, destroying the body’s ability to fight off the infection, which is then allowed to overwhelm the person.
Inhalation anthrax is by far the most serious. It is often fatal, unless early treatment is given.
Gastrointestinal anthrax is fatal 50% of the time if left untreated.
Cutaneous (skin) anthrax is only fatal 20% of the time if left untreated.
If treated promptly, gastrointestinal and cutaneous anthrax are rarely fatal.
No. There has never been a reported case of one infected individual passing anthrax on to another person. This is fortunate because this disease cannot spread through a population. A person with cutaneous anthrax could theoretically transmit the infection to another person via the fluid in the blisters; this mode of transmission has not yet been reported however.
It is treated with antibiotics. Doxycycline, Ciprofloxacin and penicillin are the only antibiotics that have shown to be effective against anthrax. They are usually given by I.V. to treat known infections. They may be given by mouth for 4 weeks to treat exposed people before infection sets in to try to prevent infection. Cipro and doxycycline cannot be given to children younger than 8 years old because they can harm bone growth.
Thousands of spores are mixed into a powder, thus making them easy to inhale.
This vaccine is given in six doses spread out over 18 months. It is normally used only for those at high risk of exposure such as military personnel. Recently, the government began working on several ways to increase vaccine production so there will be enough in the event of a large-scale attack. Some experts are considering vaccinating emergency workers and postal workers in light of recent events. Safety of the vaccine for children has not yet been studied.
Vaccination is not yet available to the general public. It probably won’t be available for a long time, except for select high-risk people in military or emergency service.
Some people have begun to stock up on a good supply of antibiotics just in case they are exposed. They fear that in the event they are exposed, they won’t be able to acquire the necessary antibiotics. This is both unnecessary and irresponsible for several reasons:
- If you are one of the very few who get exposed, you can be sure the public health department is going to get you treated immediately and properly.
- You cannot just randomly start taking one of these antibiotics every day for the next two years to protect yourself. The toxic side effects of long term Cipro and doxycycline would kill you long before you would come even close to anthrax.
- People worry that in the event of a massive outbreak, there will not be enough antibiotics to go around. Well, as stated above, a massive outbreak of anthrax is not possible because it is not passed from person to person and it takes thousands of spores just to infect one person. No one could create enough spores to infect a large population. There will therefore be plenty of antibiotics to go around when needed.
Gas masks and other protective measures are also not effective because you will already be exposed by the time you even know you were at risk.
I urge people to stay informed by watching and reading credible news sources and follow the recommendations of the U.S. government and its agencies whose job it is to protect our country.