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FAQs - "A" Agents

  • If you believe you have been exposed to a biological or chemical agent, or you have received a bioterrorism threat, please call 911.
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What is anthrax?

Anthrax is a serious disease caused by Bacillus anthracis, a bacterium that forms spores. A bacterium is a very small organism made up of one cell. Many bacteria can cause disease. A spore is a cell that is dormant (asleep) but may come to life with the right conditions. There are three types of anthrax:

  • Skin (cutaneous)
  • Lungs (inhalation)
  • Digestive (gastrointestinal)

How do you get it?

Anthrax is not known to spread from one person to another. Anthrax from animals – Humans can become infected with anthrax by handling products from infected animals or by breathing in anthrax spores from infected animal products (like wool, for example). People also can become infected with gastrointestinal anthrax by eating undercooked meat from infected animals. Anthrax as a weapon – Anthrax also can be used as a weapon. This happened in the United States in 2001. Anthrax was deliberately spread through the postal system by sending letters with powder containing anthrax. This caused 22 cases of anthrax infection.

How dangerous is anthrax?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classify agents with recognized bioterrorism potential into three priority areas (A, B and C). Anthrax is classified a Category A agent. Category A agents are those that: Pose the greatest possible threat for a bad effect on public health May spread across a large area or need public awareness Need a great deal of planning to protect the public’s health In most cases, early treatment with antibiotics can cure cutaneous anthrax. Even if untreated, 80 percent of people who become infected with cutaneous anthrax do not die. Gastrointestinal anthrax is more serious because between one-fourth and more than half of cases lead to death. Inhalation anthrax is much more severe. In 2001, about half of the cases of inhalation anthrax ended in death.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms (warning signs) of anthrax are different depending on the type of the disease:

  • Cutaneous – The first symptom is a small sore that develops into a blister. The blister then develops into a skin ulcer with a black area in the center. The sore, blister and ulcer do not hurt.
  • Gastrointestinal – The first symptoms are nausea, loss of appetite, bloody diarrhea, and fever, followed by bad stomach pain.
  • Inhalation – The first symptoms of inhalation anthrax are similar to influenza with fever, fatigue, a dry cough, and muscle aches. Later symptoms include worsening cough, chest discomfort, and shortness of breath. (Caution: Most people with cold or influenza symptoms do not have inhalation anthrax.)

How soon do infected people get sick?

Symptoms usually appear within 7 days of coming in contact with the bacterium for all three types of anthrax. However, for inhalation anthrax, symptoms can sometimes take up to 42 days to appear.

How is anthrax treated?

Antibiotics are used to treat all three types of anthrax. Early identification and treatment are important.

  • Prevention after exposure – Antibiotics such as ciprofloxacin, doxycycline, or penicillin will be given to people who are known to be exposed to anthrax, but are not yet sick. In addition, anthrax vaccine may be used.
  • Treatment after infection – Treatment involves a 60-day course of effective antibiotics. Response to therapy depends on how ill the patient is, where the infection is located, and how quickly effective antibiotics are begun.

Can anthrax be prevented?

There is a vaccine to prevent anthrax, but it is not yet available for the general public. Anyone who may be exposed to anthrax, including certain members of the U.S. armed forces, laboratory workers, and workers who may enter or re-enter contaminated areas, may get the vaccine. Also, in the event of an attack using anthrax as a weapon, people exposed could get the vaccine.

What should I do if I think I have anthrax?

If you are showing symptoms of anthrax infection, call your health-care provider.

What should I do if I think I have been exposed to anthrax?

Contact local law enforcement immediately if you think that you may have been exposed to anthrax. This includes being exposed to a suspicious package or envelope that contains powder.

Find the PDF version of this FAQ in the Zebra Manual.