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Anthrax Disease - Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Anthrax Disease - Causes, Symptoms and Treatment
In recent years, the very infamous word, 'Anthrax letters' came to light, when terrorists used anthrax spores in mails to spread the disease. These letters were directed to few US media houses and senators claiming innocent lives post September 11 attacks. Let's get to know more about this fatal disease.
Nilesh Parekh
Last Updated: May 31, 2018
Anthrax disease is one of the oldest diseases known to humankind. This disease, also known as Sixth Plague, occurred in grazing animals and was widespread in countries of Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia, etc., where it claimed hundreds of thousands of animal and human lives. In vitro production of anthrax spores has been used as biological weapons by certain terrorist groups threatening the lives of millions.
About Anthrax
Anthrax is an acute and an infectious disease occurring in ruminant animals who survive on plant-based foods like sheep, goats, cows, buffaloes, etc. However, the anthrax spores/strains can be transmitted to human race when in contact with infected animals or on consumption of their products. This causes them to be infected and ultimately be diseased. The causative agent of anthrax is a rod-shaped bacterium Bacillus anthracis which is a Gram-positive bacteria.
Anthrax can spread from one animal to another animal or human beings, through air inhaled or food/meat contaminated with spores. The bacterium has an ability to change forms (e.g., spores) and become dormant when exposed to extreme conditions of temperature, light, etc., and live for a longer period in that form. Once the spores enter into the new host's body or come in contact with a suitable environment, the bacteria becomes active.
How Does It Spread?
As already mentioned, anthrax is an infectious disease and can spread in two main ways:
  • Through direct contact with the skin or tissues of an infected animal/human to a healthy animal/human (there have been no known cases of this disease-spreading from one person to another)
  • By inhaling the air in which bacterium of this disease is active
In some cases, the incubation period after exposure to the bacteria can be as long as 57-60 days (in case of contact with the skin of an infected person/animal) and in some cases, it can be as small as 2-3 days (if the airborne spores are inhaled, which enter directly into the lungs). The intestinal form of this disease occurs when food contaminated by the spores is eaten by an animal or a human being.
Types of the Disease
There are about 89 strains of anthrax bacteria which cause various forms of this disease in animals and humans. However, there are three main types of anthrax disease.
  • Cutaneous Anthrax: This type of anthrax spreads through direct contact with the skin of an infected animal or human.
  • Gastrointestinal Anthrax: This type of anthrax is caused by consumption of infected food/meat.
  • Pulmonary Anthrax: This is also known as respiratory, pneumonic or inhalational anthrax. It spreads through respiratory tract of the host when a person inhales the spores. The resulting infection is highly lethal and the mortality rates are almost 100%. This type of infection takes very less time to attack and kill the host.
Symptoms of Cutaneous Anthrax are:
  • Infection of this type of anthrax in humans is characterized by boil-like skin lesions that start with skin bumps and form ulcers with black, painless patches/eschars.
  • The ulcers start as small, black patches on skin (like itchy and irritating lesions).
  • The area on the skin from where the spores penetrated the skin start showing changes from day 2.
  • There is an uneasy feeling due to the toxin excreted by the bacterium.
Symptoms of Gastrointestinal Anthrax are:
  • Vomiting of blood
  • Acute inflammation of the intestinal tract
  • Severe diarrhea
  • Gastrointestinal difficulty
  • Loss of appetite
  • Collapse of intestinal tract
  • Lesions in intestinal area as well as in mouth and throat
  • Uneasy feeling due to the toxin excreted by the bacterium
Symptoms of Pulmonary Anthrax are:
  • This type of anthrax shows all the flu-like and common cold symptoms.
  • Problems related to the respiratory system occur.
  • Within a couple of days, the patient's respiratory system collapses completely.
If detected early, the disease can be cured by the use of certain antibiotics which are approved by the FDA. Some of the tests done to detect anthrax infection are:
  • Test of infected skin/skin sores: A small sample of the infected skin tissue or fluids from the infected skin sores can be subjected to biopsy in labs for the detection of anthrax bacteria.
  • Test of blood samples: Blood samples of the patient can be checked for anthrax bacteria.
  • CT scans and Chest X-Ray: X- Ray reports of the chest and CT scan help detect anthrax spores inhaled by the patient.
  • Spinal Tap: It is done to confirm anthrax meningitis wherein fluid samples are extracted from the spinal canal of the patient and studied.
  • Endoscopy: An endoscopy of the intestine and throat can be done in case of intestinal anthrax. Also, in certain cases, stool samples of the patient are taken to detect the presence of anthrax.
Once diagnosed with the disease, the doctor may administer various kinds of treatment depending upon the type of infection that has occurred, some of which are discussed below.
  • High doses of antibiotics like ciprofloxacin, penicillin, tetracycline, etc. are used in case of skin infections. The treatment duration in case of cutaneous anthrax infection is 7 to 10 days.
  • In case of inhalational anthrax infection, a combination of powerful antibiotics are used to treat the disease. The length of the treatment stretches to 60 days.
Vaccination against this disease is also available. Hence, people like lab technicians, veterinarians, cattle breeders, etc., should take special care and be vaccinated. However, it needs at least a year (during which a person is given 5 doses of vaccine) to make an individual immune to this disease.
Disclaimer: This HealthHearty article is for informative purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice.