The germ warfare agent anthrax is a bacterium that, if inhaled, can kill a person in a matter of days. It sounds like science fiction, like something a mad scientist developed in a lab in hopes of taking over the world. In reality is an ancient disease of live stock and humans known since Biblical times. It just never made so many headlines before.
Anthrax is an infectious disease known as Bacillus Anthracis. The bacterium can survive for centuries in a spore form. Their inside coating of armor allows the bacteria to exist in the soil or float about in the air until it finds a host to infect.
Symptoms of the disease vary depending on how the disease was contracted, but symptoms usually occur within seven days. Usually when a person becomes infected cutaneously the bacterium enters a cut or abrasion on the skin, such as when handling contaminated wool, hides, leather or hair products (especially goat hair) of the infected animal. A skin infection begins as a raised itchy bump that resembles an insect bite, but within one to two days it develops into a vesicle and then a painless ulcer, usually one to three centimeters in diameter with a black necrotic (dying) area in the center of the ulcer. Lymph glands in the adjacent area may swell. About twenty percent of untreated cases of cutaneous anthrax will result in death (www.cdc.gov). Deaths are rare due to antimicrobial therapy.
When anthrax is contracted by inhalation the initial symptoms resemble a common cold. After several days, the symptoms may progress to a severe breathing problems and shock. The inhalation of anthrax spores usually results in death one to two days after on set of acute symptoms.
The intestinal disease form of anthrax may follow the consumption of contaminated meat and is characterized by an acute inflammation of the intestinal tract. Initial signs of nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting of blood, and severe diarrhea. Intestinal anthrax results in death occurring in 25 to 60% of these cases (www.cdc.gov).
If anthrax were to be used in biological warfare, pulmonary (or inhalation) anthrax would be of greatest concern this is the most lethal form of the disease. If billions of anthrax spores were to be in the air as could be the case if anthrax were to be unleashed by the explosion of a missile one would only have to take one or two deep breaths to inhale enough anthrax to cause serious infection.
The inhaled bacterium takes hold in the lungs and produces toxins. After about twelve hours, symptoms will begin to appear. The initial symptoms resemble a common cold, but after several days of these mild symptoms, the infection begins to rapidly progress. The person may have a high fever and go into shock. Breathing becomes very difficult as the lungs fill with fluid. Once symptoms become acute, the person usually dies within twenty-four hours. Antibiotics are sometimes effective if taken very quickly after exposure but pulmonary anthrax is typically fatal in about 90% of cases (www.cdc.gov). Pulmonary anthrax is a non-communicable disease.
There has been an announcement from the United States Department of Defense leaders on the current issue of potential germ warfare in the Middle East. The announcement was made in December of 1997; it stated that all United States military personnel (reserve and active duty) will be vaccinated against Anthrax. The vaccinations are expected to start this summer.
There is a highly effective anthrax vaccine both for humans and animals. Animal herds in regions were anthrax is endemic are often vaccinated annually. The animal vaccine was developed in 1939. The human vaccine, licensed by the FDA in 1970,consists of three shots given two weeks apart followed by three additional shots given over six, twelve, and eighteen months apart (www.defenselink.com)
Annual booster shots are required to maintain immunity.
The vaccine is recommended for farm workers and veterinarians in regions were anthrax is prominent, and for laboratory workers who handle anthrax cultures.
There have been no reported cases of anthrax associated with biological warfare or acts of terrorism to date (www.defenselink.com). However, United States military officials believe that an outbreak (1996 official report) of human anthrax in the former Soviet Union in 1979, which was originally linked to contaminated meat may have occurred because of an explosion at a secret germ warfare facility in the city of Severdlovsk. It is believed that the explosion sent deadly anthrax spores airborne, causing hundreds of fatalities that were never reported.
It is not likely that one would find these bacteria in ones backyard. Fortunately, it is very rare in most parts of the world, including the United States. Where the Center for Disease Control and Prevention have reports of only 235 cases since 1955 (www.cdc.gov).