Anthrax...A Burning Coal


(December 28, 1997) - All of a sudden anthrax is in the news since the December 15 announcement from the Pentagon that the entire U.S. military, 2.4 million strong including a million reservists, was to be vaccinated against this potentially deadly biological agent.

Actually anthrax is not a human disease. It is an infection of animals. Not all, but certain species, like cattle, sheep, horses, mules, and some wild animals are highly susceptible. Humans (and, coincidentally, swine) are generally resistant to anthrax.

This is not to say that humans can't get anthrax. They, of course, can. Some 60,000 people in southern Europe died of anthrax in 1613 and the disease has been recognized in America since colonial days.

Anthrax can take different forms. As an agent of biological warfare, anthrax is "designed" to cause the lung form of the disease. People inhale the anthrax spores and, if untreated, are likely to die. Eating meat contaminated with anthrax causes an intestinal form.

But most human anthrax over the years has come from skin contact with animal products. Cutaneous (skin) anthrax was once well known among people who handled infected animals, like farmers, wool sorters, tanners, brush makers and carpet makers in the days when the brushes and carpets were animal products.

The hallmark of skin anthrax is a carbuncle, a cluster of boils that ulcerates in an ugly way. Typically this lesion has a hard black center surrounded by bright red inflammation. This accounts for its name, "anthrax", the Greek word for "coal." From a burning coal, anthrax has become the stuff, unfortunately, of front-page news.

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