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What You Should Know About Anthrax

While there are still a lot of unanswered questions about whether the cases of anthrax infection in Florida are related to a bioterrorist attack, the deadly disease does occur naturally in the environment. Dr. Senay is here with more.

What causes anthrax?

Anthrax is a natural organism. It is found in the soil in many parts of the world and causes disease in animals and much less commonly in human beings.

It is caused by a bacterium called Bacillus anthrax. The bacterium comes in two forms. One form is a spore which can survive in many environments.

Humans can get the disease in three ways. The most common is through the skin, causing cutaneous anthrax, which is treatable with antibiotics. But the bacteria also produces spores that can cause the disease when inhaled.

That is the type that has killed one man in Florida. The final type is the least common and called gastrointestinal anthrax. Once the spore gets into the body, it begins to germinate, causing illness.

Where can you catch anthrax?

It's not infectious, so if you get the disease, you can't spread it from person to person. With inhaled anthrax, you need to become exposed to large quantities of the spores to become ill. Most exposures occur around farms and in people who work with animals. When cases of anthrax do occur, they are almost always cutaneous. There has not been a case of inhaled anthrax before the Florida case since 1978. To make anthrax a weapon does require a lot of sophistication because large numbers of spores are needed.

How do you know if you have been exposed? Should people be worried that cold and flu symptoms that we all might normally have this time of year are in fact anthrax?

It's understandable that people are anxious. But it is important to keep things in perspective. Health experts have said that if you were in an area where there has been a confirmed case of anthrax, then you get checked out. But if you have not been in an area where there has been a case of anthrax, and you have mild symptoms, they don't want people to panic. Anthrax is a disease that is very dramatic. It's not like a cold or a minor sore throat. While the early symptoms mimic the flu, if a person has anthrax, the symptoms very quickly progress.

Right now, doctors around the country are very vigilant about identifying cases that are suspicious and might be the result of bioterrorism.

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