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Are Common Fears About Anthrax Realistic?

As investigations continue into the reported cases of anthrax in Florida, public anxiety about the bacteria is on the rise. CBS medical correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin reports.

Anthrax spores can enter the human body in three ways. Inhalation, as in the case of the Florida photo editor, is the most rare and most deadly way. Spores can also be ingested if a person eats infected livestock. Finally, they can enter the skin and cause a case of cutaneous anthrax, which is what happened to an NBC employee.

Cutaneous anthrax is the mildest and most common form of anthrax. There are about 2,000 cases worldwide each year, a handful of which take place in the United States. Most of these cases involve people who work with animals.

Contrary to fears, anthrax is not easy to get.

Spores do not eat through healthy skin. A small cut or abrasion, however, would be enough to provide them an entryway. From there, the first sign of infection would be a small pimple or ulcer. This would eventually grow into a black lesion. Anthrax gets its name from the appearance of this lesion, which resembles anthracite, or coal.

Given proper treatment--either of the antibiotics Cipro or penicillin--death from cutaneous anthrax is extremely unlikely.

Nevertheless, NBC News took the precaution of shutting its offices after an anthrax scare on Friday. Even CBS News locked down its mailroom after the incident.

Anthrax experts say small quantities of spores in the air or on surfaces cannot infect large numbers of people. The cases reported are isolated and localized. Even if spores still exist in the building, the shutdown should prevent further exposure.

Public health officials are walking a fine line right now. On the one hand, they must convince Americans that they should not panic over these unexplained incidents. On the other hand, officials themselves have little historical experience with anthrax and are also feeling their way through unsettling new terrain.

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