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The Mass Media

Health Services Answers Anthrax Questions

Q. What is anthrax?

A. Anthrax is an infectious disease caused by the spore-forming Bacterium Bacillus anthracis. The bacteria can infect all warm-blooded animals including man.

Q. How common is anthrax and who can get it?

A. Anthrax is most common in agricultural regions where it occurs in animals. These include South and Central America, Southern and Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. In humans, the disease is usually caused by an occupational exposure to infected animals or their products. Anthrax has not been reported in Massachusetts in over 30 years.

Q. How is anthrax spread?

A. B. anthracis spores can live in the soil for decades. A person may become infected with anthrax by inhaling anthrax spores from soil or by handling wool or hair from infected animals (which can cause skin exposures. Infection of the intestinal tract can occur by eating undercooked meat from diseased animals.

Q. What are the symptoms of anthrax?

A. The symptoms vary depending upon the type of exposure.

Cutaneous: Most anthrax infections occur when 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 infected animals. A boil-like lesion appears which eventually forms an ulcer with a black center. A swelling of the lymph glands may also occur.

Inhalation: Initial symptoms may resemble influenza. After several days, the symptoms may progress to severe breathing problems and pneumonia.

Inhalation: Anthrax usually results in death in 1-2 days after onset of the acute symptoms.

Intestinal: 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 and fever are followed by abdominal pain, vomiting of blood, and severe diarrhea.

Q. How soon after being infected do symptoms appear?

A. Symptoms of disease usually occur within seven days, with most cases occurring within 48 hours. Low doses of exposure can cause longer incubation periods for inhalation anthrax (up to 60 days).

Q. Can anthrax be spread from person-to-person?

A. There are no reports of the disease spreading from person to person.

Q. How is anthrax diagnosed?

A. Anthrax is diagnosed by isolating the bacteria from blood, skin lesions, or respiratory secretions.

Q. What is the treatment for anthrax?

A. Penicillin or ciprofloxacin are the preferred drugs, but erythromycin, tetracycline, or chloramphenicol can also be used. To be effective, treatment should be initiated early. If left untreated, the disease can be fatal.

Q. Is there a vaccine to prevent anthrax?

A. The anthrax vaccine licensed for human use in the United States is a cell-free filtrate vaccine, which means parts of dead bacteria are used as opposed to live bacteria. The vaccine is available for people in high-risk occupations such as military personnel or people who handle animal hides. Anthrax vaccine is not routinely recommended for the general population.

Q. Where can I find more information about anthrax and other infectious diseases?

A. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health has many fact sheets available with information on infectious diseases. Please visit the MDPH website at www.state.ma.us/dph/cdc or call at 617-983-6800.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 1600 Clifton Rd.

Atlanta, GA

30333 (800) 311-3435

Kathleen Golden McAndrew, MSN, CRNP,CS, FAAOHN, executive director, University Health Services, UMass Boston

For more information, log on to www.umb.edu/student_services/health/ or call 7-5660.