Anthrax

  • Medical Author:

    Dr. Fishbein received his undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Illinois. He completed a residency in anatomic and clinical pathology at Harbor General Hospital/UCLA Medical Center. He is board certified in anatomic and clinical pathology.

  • 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.

View First Aid Essentials Slideshow Pictures
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 transmitted from animals.
  • Anthrax causes skin, lung, and bowel disease and can be deadly.
  • Anthrax is diagnosed by cultures from infected tissues.
  • Anthrax is treated by antibiotics.
  • Anthrax can be prevented.
  • 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?

Anthrax is a life-threatening infectious disease 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.

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.

How is anthrax contracted?

Anthrax can infect humans in three ways. The most common is infection through the skin, which causes an ugly sore that usually goes away without treatment. Humans and animals can ingest anthrax from carcasses of dead animals that have been contaminated with anthrax. Ingestion of anthrax can cause serious, sometimes fatal disease. The most deadly form is inhalation anthrax. If the spores of anthrax are inhaled, they migrate to lymph glands in the chest where they proliferate, spread, and produce toxins that often cause death.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/18/2015

Subscribe to MedicineNet's Skin Care & Conditions Newsletter

By clicking Submit, I agree to the MedicineNet's Terms & Conditions & Privacy Policy and understand that I may opt out of MedicineNet's subscriptions at any time.

VIEW PATIENT COMMENTS
  • Anthrax - Treatment

    While rare, anthrax can be treated. Discuss what you'd do in the event of exposure to a biological weapon.

    Post
  • Anthrax - Concerns

    Please discuss your concerns about anthrax or other agents used as biological weapons.

    Post
  • Anthrax - Prevention

    Although the possibility of infection is rare, anthrax can be a source of fear, confusion, and uncertainty. Please share how you've discussed the threat with your family.

    Post View 1 Comment

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors