Diseases & Conditions
A potentially fatal bacterial infection that can cause either a skin or respiratory infection. In the past the bacteria affected primarily livestock, but in 2001 infection with anthrax spores was used as a potential terrorist weapon. During the autumn of 2001 numerous pieces of mail tainted with anthrax spores sickened and killed Americans on the east coast; one infant became infected with skin anthrax after visiting a New York City ofﬁce contaminated by anthrax spores.
Anthrax is caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, which produces spores that can remain dormant for years. When reactivated, anyone can contract the disease who breathes in the spores or who comes in contact with the spores on the skin.
The most common symptom of skin anthrax is a raised, itchy area at the site of entry, progressing to a large blister and then a black scab with swelling of surrounding tissue. Respiratory anthrax, which is a much more serious infection, begins with ﬂu-like symptoms and can kill within days if untreated.
Anthrax is diagnosed by isolating B. anthracis from the blood, skin lesions, or respiratory secretions, or by measuring speciﬁc antibodies in the blood.
Prompt treatment with antibiotics such as ciprofloxin or penicillin can cure anthrax, although the death rate for inhaled anthrax is high even with treatment. Less is known about the prognosis in children.
While the government does not provide anthrax vaccinations for civilians, it did offer vaccination for postal workers considered to be at high risk for infection due to the terrorist use of anthraxcontaminated mail.
Because anthrax is considered to be a risk of biological warfare, the Department of Defense systematically vaccinates all U.S. military personnel. The anthrax vaccine is reported to be 93 percent effective in protecting against anthrax and is given in three subcutaneous injections two weeks apart followed by three more injections given at six, 12, and 18 months. Annual booster injections of the vaccine are recommended thereafter.
About 30 percent of recipients experience mild local reactions and slight tenderness and redness at the injection site. Severe local reactions are infrequent and consist of extensive swelling of the forearm in addition to the local reaction. Systemic reactions occur in fewer than 0.2 percent of recipients.