The Bug

Anthrax - General Overview          prepared by Dr. Sue Lim, MD            

Anthrax is an infection caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis. Isolated and characterized by Robert Koch in 1867, the anthrax bacillus has the potential to be used in biological warfare. However, human anthrax is uncommon, with only three cases of cutaneous anthrax reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 1984 and 1997. There have been less than 20 cases of the more serious inhalation form anthrax in North America this century, the most recent in 1976

There are three major anthrax syndromes. Cutaneous anthrax, representing about 95% of human cases of anthrax, occurs when anthrax comes into contact with cuts or other skin lesions. The infection is local, and is curable with antibiotics. The mortality associated with cutaneous anthrax is about 20% if untreated. Inhalation anthrax, resulting from inhalation of anthrax spores, causes a severe inflammatory condition that is usually fatal. Gastrointestinal anthrax follows the ingestion of contaminated meat and has only been documented in developing nations.

Anthrax cannot be transmitted from person-to-person. Persons exposed to anthrax can be effectively protected from infection by treatment with antibiotics. A non-living anthrax vaccine was licensed in 1970 in the United States. However vaccination is not recommended for the general public. Current vaccine stocks are reserved for use in at-risk veterinary staff, laboratory workers who handle anthrax cultures, and livestock handlers, as well as military personnel deployed to areas where exposure through biological warfare is considered a risk.

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