Anthrax is a serious infectious disease caused by a bacteria that can lie dormant in soil for decades. While anthrax occurs most often in humans handling animals (or animal products) infected with the bacteria, there have been several instances of anthrax being used as a bioterror agent. Most recently, anthrax was used in 2001 when letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to several news media offices and two U.S. senators, resulting in five deaths and 17 individuals infected with the bacteria. While there has been a lull in anthrax coverage in recent years, it’s an extremely dangerous bioterrorism weapon that should remain top of mind. We sat down with Gerald Parker, D.V.M., Ph.D., vice president for public health preparedness and response at Texas A&M Health Science Center, to find out some basics about the infectious disease.   

1. What is Anthrax?

Anthrax is an infectious disease caused by rod-shaped bacteria known as Bacillus anthracis, which produces dormant spores that can live in the environment, like soil, for many years. As a naturally occurring substance, anthrax commonly affects domestic and wild herbivores, who eat the naturally occurring spores while grazing. Although it is rare, it can cause serious illness in humans and, if left untreated, can lead to death.

Anthrax is most common in agricultural regions of Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa, central and southwestern Asia, southern and Eastern Europe and the Caribbean. While human disease is rare in the United States, sporadic outbreaks do occur in wild and domestic grazing animals such as cattle and deer.

2. How it is contracted?

When spores get into the body of an animal or person they can be “activated” and turn into active, growing cells. After this occurs the bacteria begin to multiply, spreading out in the body, and producing toxins that cause severe illness. It is important to note that anthrax is not contagious person-to-person, like the cold or flu. However, there are multiple ways in which individuals can become exposed to anthrax spores, including: inhalation of contaminated materials, such as wool, hides or hair (inhalation); cuts and lesions on the body (cutaneous); and ingestion of undercooked meats from infected animals or drinking contaminated water (gastrointestinal).

Cutaneous anthrax is the most common form of the disease in humans, accounting for over 95 percent of all cases. Fortunately, cutaneous anthrax is also the least deadly form of anthrax, with a mortality rate of only 10-20 percent if left untreated. Gastrointestinal anthrax exhibits mortality rates from 25-75 percent in the absence of treatment, and untreated inhalation anthrax results in greater than 80 percent fatality.

Worth noting, those most at risk for being naturally exposed to anthrax spores are individuals who work closely with animals and livestock, or animal products contaminated with anthrax spores.

3. What are the symptoms of anthrax?

Initial symptoms, which are generally similar to flu-like symptoms (fever and chills, cough, nausea and vomiting and body aches), can take anywhere from one day to more than two months to appear and depend upon the type of infection. If someone has symptoms of anthrax, it’s important to get medical care as quickly as possible for the best chance of survival and a full recovery.

For a complete list of symptoms for inhalation, cutaneous and gastrointestinal anthrax, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

4. Is there a treatment?

Anthrax can be treated with antibiotics and antitoxins, but those who contract a serious case of anthrax will need to be hospitalized and undergo an aggressive course of treatment. Depending on the patient’s history and antibiotic sensitivity testing, the doctor will select the best antibiotics, therapeutics and supportive care for the patient.

5. Is there anything you can do to prevent the disease?

While there is a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) licensed vaccine indicated for active immunization for the prevention of disease caused by Bacillus anthracis, it is usually not available for the general public. The vaccine is available for at-risk adults, whose jobs expose them to possible sources of anthrax including: certain laboratory workers, some people who work with or handle animals and animal products and some members of the U.S. military.

For the general public, preventative measures in the form of antibiotics are in order for anyone who has been exposed to anthrax spores to mitigate disease development. The manufacturer of the FDA licensed anthrax vaccine also recently filed an application with the FDA to use the vaccine in conjunction with antibiotics to prevent anthrax disease after suspected or confirmed exposure to Bacillus anthracis.

Dr. Gerald Parker, vice president for public health preparedness and response at the Texas A&M Health Science Center and principal investigator at the Texas A&M Center for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing. Dr. Parker previously served as deputy assistant secretary of defense in Washington, D.C., leading chemical and biological defense; and former Commanding Officer of Fort Detrick.

— Holly Shive

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