Common Questions About Anthrax

The type of anthrax currently making the rounds of New York media outlets is contracted by touching the spores. It is easily treated with antibiotics and rarely kills.

The inhaled form, as seen in Florida, can be an insidious and efficient killer. If the spores are inhaled they can kill in a matter of 2 or 3 days, doing its worst damage with symptoms that seem no worse than a cold.

The military considers anthrax to be the most serious of all biological threats. But to be so dangerous, anthrax must be "weaponized,'' manufactured in the form of fine spores that can be breathed deep into the lungs.

None of the anthrax seen so far has been "weaponized."

Here are answers to questions most often asked about this microbe.

What does anthrax look like?

In its most destructive form--an aerosol sprayed into the air--it is invisible and odorless. Anthrax spores can only be seen through a microscope that magnifies 50 to 100 times. Scientists say it can be stored in bulk as a powder, liquid, or paste.

Where is anthrax usually found?

Anthrax can be found globally. It is more common in developing countries or countries without veterinary public health programs. Certain regions of the world (South and Central America, Southern and Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East) report more anthrax in animals than others.

Would I know if I breathed anthrax?

No.

If anthrax is on the ground, can I get it from kicking up dust?

Probably not. The spores tend to clump together, so even if inhaled, they do not get deep into the lungs.

How much anthrax does it take to make someone sick?

Roughly 10,000 spores.

Can anthrax be spread from person to person?

Direct person-to-person spread of anthrax is extremely unlikely to occur. Communicability is not a concern in managing or visiting with patients with inhalational anthrax.

Where do anthrax spores come from?

Anthrax bacteria live in the blood of animals. When an animal dies, the bacteria form spores, which are released.

What happens when a person breathes them?

The spores become lodged in the lungs. There, they are picked up by immune system cells called macrophages, which carry them to the lymph nodes. On the way, the spores mature into bacteria.

How do they make people sick?

The bacteria multiply in the lymph nodes and then enter the bloodstream. They produce a poison that causes the immune system to produce lethal doses of chemicals that are ordinarily useful to the body.

What are the symptoms?

At first, they seem like a cold or flu: fever, ache, and nonproductive cough. Plummeting blood pressure, swelling, hemorrhaging, and other catastrophic symptoms soon follow.

How quickly does it kill?

Typically within 3 days of the start of symptoms.

How soon do symptoms start once people breathe thspores?

Usually around 10 days, but up to 6 weeks.

Can it be treated?

It can be treated with antibiotics such as Cipro or doxycycline if given before symptoms start. Treatment usually fails once symptoms set in, since it does no good to kill the bacteria once they make large amounts of toxin.

Isn't there a vaccine to prevent it?

The only vaccine is in limited supply and is now only available to the military. The anthrax vaccine is manufactured and distributed by the BioPort Corporation of Lansing, Michigan. The vaccine is a cell-free filtrate vaccine, which means it contains no dead or live bacteria in the preparation. The final product contains no more than 2.4 milligrams of aluminum hydroxide as adjuvant. Anthrax vaccines intended for animals should not be used in humans.

Are there other forms of anthrax disease?

Yes. By far the most common is anthrax on the skin, which forms inflamed bumps. It can be fatal but usually goeaway on its own. This form most often infects people who handle livestock.

How can anthrax spores be killed?

They can live for many years in the ground and resist drying, heat, and ultraviolet light. They can be killed with a mixture of bleach and water or with vaporized formaldehyde.

Where would someone get anthrax?

Anthrax is grown and maintained in cell cultures that are kept by research labs. It is not sold or otherwise legally distributed. Theoretically, anthrax could be isolated and grown from the remains of an animal that died of anthrax or from nearby soil. Several countries have produced large quantities of anthrax as weapons.

How long has anthrax been around?

Anthrax is thought to have been one of the Egyptian plagues at the time of Moses. The ancient Romans recorded cases.

How does it get its name?

It comes from the Greek word for coal. It's called this because of the black scab it leaves on the skin.

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