Ten things you need to know about anthrax
(CNN) -- The following questions and answers about anthrax are provided courtesy of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
1. What is anthrax?
Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis. It most commonly occurs in mammal such cattle, sheep, goats, camels and antelopes, but can also occur in humans when they are exposed to infected animals or tissue from infected animals.
2. How common is anthrax and who can get it?
Anthrax is most common in agricultural regions where it occurs in animals. Humans infected with anthrax usually have been exposed to infected animals or their products through their occupation. Workers who are exposed to dead animals and animal products from other countries where anthrax is more common may become infected with Bacillus anthracis.
3. How is anthrax transmitted?
Anthrax infection can occur in three forms: cutaneous (skin), inhalation, and gastrointestinal. Spores can live in the soil for years, and humans can become infected with anthrax by handling products from infected animals or by inhaling anthrax spores from contaminated animal products. Eating undercooked meat from infected animals also can spread the disease. It is rare to find infected animals in the United States.
4. What are the symptoms of anthrax?
They vary depending on how the disease was contracted, but symptoms usually occur within seven days.
- Cutaneous: About 95 percent of anthrax infections occur when the bacterium enters a cut or abrasion on the skin, such as when handling contaminated wool, hides, leather or hair products of infected animals. It begins as a raised itchy bump that resembles an insect bite, but soon turns into a painless ulcer, usually one to three centimeters in diameter usually with a black center in the middle. Lymph glands in the adjacent area may swell. About 20 percent of untreated cases result in death. The employee at NBC who contracted anthrax has cutaneous anthrax.
- Inhalation: Initial symptoms may resemble a common cold, but lead to severe breathing problems and shock after several days. Inhalation anthrax is usually fatal. An employee of a Florida tabloid publishing company contracted inhalation anthrax and died.
- Intestinal: This form of anthrax may follow the consumption of contaminated meat and is characterized by an acute inflammation of the intestinal tract. Initial signs include nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting and fever, followed by abdominal pain, vomiting blood and severe diarrhea. Between 25 percent and 60 percent of cases are fatal.
5. Where is anthrax usually found?
Anthrax is global. 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 elsewhere.
6. Can anthrax be spread from person to person?
Direct, person-to-person spread of anthrax is extremely unlikely. It is not contagious.
7. How do you kill anthrax spores?
Anthrax spores are very hardy. They have been known to survive for 80 years in the ground, resisting heat, drought and other hardships.
There is a lot of interest in irradiating mail to kill anthrax bacteria, using the kind of technology the food safety industry has developed. Ultraviolet light could kill anthrax on the surface of items, but not inside envelopes or packages. High heat for long duration can also kill anthrax. But that temperature would burn mail. Most experts discount the idea that ironing mail would do any good.
Sandia National Laboratories is working on a bacteria-killing agent to clean contaminated offices. Antibiotics can be effective anthrax-killers in an infected person, especially if someone contracts cutaneous anthrax and gets prompt treatment.
8. Is there a way to prevent infection?
In countries where anthrax is common and vaccination levels of animal herds are low, humans should avoid contact with livestock and animal products and not eat meat that has not been properly prepared.
Also, an anthrax vaccine has been licensed for use in humans. It is reported to be 93 percent effective.
9. What is the anthrax vaccine?
It is manufactured and distributed by BioPort Corp. of Lansing, Michigan. It is a cell-free filtrate vaccine, which means it contains no dead or live bacteria in the preparation. Anthrax vaccines intended for animals should not be used in humans.
10. Who should get vaccinated against anthrax?
The CDCP's advisory committee on immunization practices recommends vaccination for the following:
- People who work directly with the organism in the laboratory
- People who work with imported animal hides or furs in areas where standards are insufficient to prevent exposure to anthrax spores.
- People who handle potentially infected animal products in high-incidence areas. (Incidence is low in the United States, but veterinarians who travel to work in other countries where the incidence is higher should consider getting vaccinated.)
- Military personnel deployed to areas with high risk for exposure to the organism (as when it is used as a biological warfare weapon).
Pregnant women should be vaccinated only if absolutely necessary.
The anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program in the U.S. Army Surgeon General's Office can be reached at 1-877-GETVACC (1-877-438-8222). http://www.anthrax.osd.mil
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