What is Anthrax?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 October 2019
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Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by a bacterium Bacillus anthrasis. It became especially prominent in 2001 when several human cases of anthrax were linked to deliberate exposure, raising concerns about the use of the bacteria as a biological weapon. This disease would make a rather effective biological weapon since the spores can remain dormant for many years, activating as soon as conditions become optimal, and it is very easy to contract the disease through inhalation, leading to the potential for mass dispersal through aircraft, explosives, or random package drops.

The disease was well known in the ancient world, as writings and archaeological evidence suggest. It primarily affects farm animals, with cases of human anthrax being contracted from exposure to infected animals. Humans cannot pass the disease onto each other, so it is not contagious, but it takes exposure to just a few spores to lead to a serious infection. Like other bacterial infections, this condition is treated with antibiotics.


There are three kinds of anthrax: cutaneous, gastrointestinal, and inhalation. Cutaneous anthrax is contracted through cuts on the skin. It is characterized by a small sore which turns into a blister with a black center. It has a relatively high survival rate, especially if it is caught early. Gastrointestinal anthrax is somewhat more serious. It is caused through ingestion of infectious material, such as poorly cooked meat. The patient may experience nausea, loss of appetite, diarrhea, and a severe fever; mortality rates from this form vary widely from 25% to 75%.

The most serious form is inhalation anthrax, caused by inhaling infectious spores which may be stirred up in soil, scraped from animal material, or deliberately introduced into the environment. The mortality rate can be as high as 80%, with symptoms beginning as a low grade flu and developing into a cough. Since this form is relatively rare, it can be difficult to diagnose, especially when people are frightened and overloading clinics with normal cold and flu symptoms.

A vaccine is available for anthrax, although it is not widely used since the natural risk of contracting the disease is relatively low. People who work extensively with animals such as veterinarians and slaughterhouse workers may choose to be vaccinated, as do some microbiologists and researchers who may be exposed to Bacillus anthrasis in the course of their work. Active duty military personnel are also vaccinated, due to its potential use as a biological agent.


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Post 4

Wow, thanks. You really helped me out.

Post 3

There is a potential problem with anthrax that I think has not been recognized enough yet.

There was an article some time ago about how the use of antibiotics increased after the anthrax incidents in the past decade because people wanted protection just in case. But since anthrax is actually a really rare disease, many people used antibiotics for no reason.

I'm afraid that if anthrax is continued to be used as a biological weapon and antibiotic use increases the way it has been, it's going to promote the mutation of bacteria. Then antibacterial medicines are not going to work. And eventually, many people might die, not from anthrax, but simple bacterial infections.

Post 2

Inhaled anthrax is definitely the scariest one! I heard that it basically kills in several days and the bacteria stays in air for a long time and many people can get infected.

I remember the events in 2001. I think five people had died then. Whenever an unknown package is found by politicians and military personnel now, everyone fears that it's anthrax.

At least the vaccine is available. I hope better treatments will be developed too.

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