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What is anthrax?

October 10, 2001

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ANTHRAX is a name for an acutely infectious disease caused by a germ, Bacillus anthracis, which can be found in ruminant animals, such as cows, sheep, goats, camels and antelopes. Outbreaks among these animals are rare in Western Europe and the United States and are more likely to occur in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The germs can form spores, a protective capsule that enables them to resist degradation in nature. Fields where anthrax-infected cattle have been buried can harbour the spores for decades. If anthrax spores enter the body, the bacteria proliferates, producing poisonous toxins that cause sickness or death.

Human casualties of anthrax are historically rare. Those most at risk are people who handle dead animals or their products.

Anthrax spores are absorbed through one of three ways, with the symptoms usually showing up after three to five days of infection:

i) through the skin, via a cut or an abrasion (about 95 percent of cases). A raised itchy bump, rather like an insect bite, develops into a painless lesion about one to three centimetres (0.5 to one inch) across, with a characteristic area of blackish, dying flesh in the centre. Among untreated cases, the death rate is about 20 percent.

ii) by eating contaminated, undercooked meat. Early symptoms are nausea, vomiting, acute abdominal pain and diarrhoea, followed by blood poisoning and shock. Intestinal anthrax results in death in 25-60 percent of cases.

iii) by being inhaled. Initial symptoms resemble those of a cold, which after several days develop into breathing problems and shock, often followed by coma. Inhaled anthrax is usually fatal.

Person-to-person spread of anthrax is extremely unlikely.

TREATMENT: anthrax patients can be cured with antibiotics, but provided the disease is spotted quickly enough, especially in respiratory or intestinal infections. The problem is that symptoms of anthrax are often difficult to distinguish from those of a cold, a flu or food poisoning.

vaccine: There is a vaccine against anthrax, which is routinely administered to US military personnel but is otherwise not recommended except for people considered at high risk—AFP