Anthrax

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Learn about the deadliest outbreak of anthrax in recorded history.

Anthrax - From Russia with Love

This article recounts the chilling, yet fascinating story of the deadliest outbreak of anthrax in recorded history. Anthrax is a bacterium (germ) that can cause a serious, sometimes fatal infection. Anthrax can be used as a weapon. In 2001, anthrax was spread through the mail in a powder. Twenty-two people were infected. The events that occurred in Sverdlovsk, Russia, in 1979 demonstrate what can happen when anthrax is released into the air.

Anthrax facts

  • Anthrax is an infection by bacteria, Bacillus anthracis, usually transmitted from animals.
  • Anthrax causes skin, lung, and bowel disease and can be deadly.
  • Anthrax is diagnosed using bacterial cultures from infected tissues.
  • There are four types of anthrax: cutaneous, inhalation, gastrointestinal, and injection.
  • Anthrax is treated by antibiotics.
  • Pulmonary anthrax is often lethal.
  • It is possible to prevent anthrax.
  • Sadly, the greatest threat of anthrax today is through a bioterrorist attack.
  • Federal, state, and local agencies are working hard to deal with this bioterrorist threat.

What is anthrax? Is anthrax contagious?

Anthrax is a life-threatening infectious disease caused by Bacillus anthracis that normally affects animals, especially ruminants (such as goats, cattle, sheep, and horses). Anthrax can be transmitted to humans by contact with infected animals or their products. In recent years, anthrax has received a great deal of attention as it has become clear that the infection can also be spread by a bioterrorist attack or by biological warfare. Anthrax does not spread from person to person and is not considered contagious.

There have been a number of outbreaks over the years that are usually localized. Most recently in 2016, in Siberia, Russia, there was a major outbreak of anthrax that sickened at least 13 Siberian people and killed over 2,000 reindeer. Authorities believe that the melting permafrost unburied a reindeer that died of anthrax 75 years ago, causing the release of anthrax spores.

What causes anthrax?

The agent of anthrax is a bacterium called Bacillus anthracis. While other investigators discovered the anthrax bacillus, it was a German physician and scientist, Dr. Robert Koch, who proved that the anthrax bacterium was the cause of a disease that affected farm animals in his community. Under the microscope, the bacteria look like large rods. However, in the soil, where they live, anthrax organisms exist in a dormant form called spores. These spores are very hardy and difficult to destroy. The spores have been known to survive in the soil for as long as 48 years. The bacteria secrete toxins composed of three proteins termed protective antigen, lethal factor, and edema factor.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/19/2016

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