Anthrax: What You Need to Know
Author : Christine Many    -   Subject : Health

    With the reporting of several deaths, penetration to a White House mailroom facility, and an evoling preventive health care strategy, fears of anthrax contamination continue to spread. Here's what you need to know.

    What is anthrax?

    Is it contagious?

    How is it transmitted?

    What are the symptoms?

    Is there a vaccine?

    How is anthrax diagnosed?

    What is the treatment?

    Does the government have a plan in place to make antibiotics available if there were mass exposure to anthrax?

    Should I stockpile antibiotics to protect my family?

    Should I take antibiotics as a precautionary measure, even if I wasn't exposed to anthrax?

    Whom should I call in my local area if I'm concerned about exposure?

    What is anthrax?
    Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis. Anthrax most commonly occurs in wild and domestic lower vertebrates (cattle, sheep, goats, camels, antelopes and other herbivores), but it can also infect humans when they are exposed to it.

    Is it contagious?
    Anthrax cannot be spread from person to person. To catch it, a person must come directly in contact with the bacteria.

    How is it transmitted?
    Anthrax infection can occur in three forms: cutaneous (skin), inhalation, and gastrointestinal. B. anthracis spores can live in the soil for many years. Humans may become infected with anthrax by handling products from infected animals or by inhaling anthrax spores from contaminated animal products. Anthrax can also be spread by eating undercooked meat of infected animals, although it is rare to find infected animals in the United States.

    What are the symptoms?
    Symptoms of disease vary depending on how the disease was contracted, but they usually present themselves within 7 days after exposure.

    Cutaneous: Most (about 95%) anthrax infections occur when the bacterium enters a cut or abrasion on the skin. Skin infection begins as a raised itchy bump that resembles an insect bite but within 1-2 days develops into a vesicle (blister or cyst) and then a painless ulcer, usually 1-3 cm in diameter, with a characteristic black area in the center. Lymph glands in the adjacent area may swell. About 20% of untreated cases of cutaneous anthrax will result in death. Deaths are rare when treated with appropriate antibiotics.

    Intestinal: The intestinal form of anthrax may follow the consumption of contaminated meat and is characterized by an acute inflammation of the intestinal tract. Initial signs of infection -- nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting, fever -- are followed by abdominal pain, vomiting of blood and severe diarrhea. Intestinal anthrax can be treated with antibiotics, but it results in death in 25% to 60% of cases.

    Inhalation: Initial symptoms may resemble a common cold. After several days, the symptoms may progress to severe breathing problems and shock. Inhalation anthrax is usually fatal.

    Is there a vaccine?
    Yes, but vaccination is not recommended for the general public. Right now the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has recommend anthrax vaccination only for the following groups:
    People who work directly with the organism in the laboratory
    People who work with imported animal hides or furs in areas where standards are insufficient to prevent exposure to anthrax spores.
    People who handle potentially infected animal products in high-incidence areas.
    Military personnel deployed to areas with high risk for exposure to the organism (when used as a biological warfare weapon).
    How is anthrax diagnosed?
    Anthrax is diagnosed by isolating B. anthracis from the blood, skin lesions, or respiratory secretions or by measuring specific antibodies in the blood.

    What is the treatment?
    If someone has been exposed to anthrax spores, disease can be prevented by early treatment with the appropriate antibiotics. Three types of antibiotics are approved for anthrax treatment: ciprofloxacin (commonly known as Cipro), tetracyclines (including doxycycline) and penicillins. People who have been exposed to anthrax, but do not exhibit symptoms may be prescribed a 60-day course of one of the antibiotics listed above to reduce the risk or progression of disease.

    Does the government have a plan to make antibiotics available if there were mass exposure to anthrax?
    Yes. Under emergency plans, the federal government would ship appropriate antibiotics from its stockpile to wherever they were needed.

    Should I stockpile antibiotics to protect my family?
    No. Antibiotics from the current stockpile will be made available as needed. In addition, filling unnecessary prescriptions now increases the risk of a shortage of medication when it is truly needed.

    Should I take antibiotics as a precautionary measure, even if I wasn't exposed to anthrax?
    Absolutely not. Taking antibiotics when you don't need them increases the chance of developing resistance to the drugs. The result: The medicine might not work at a time you really need it. Also, antibiotics should only be taken under medical supervision because they can have dangerous side effects.

    Whom should I call in my local area if I'm concerned about exposure?
    If you think you may have been exposed to anthrax, contact your local or state health department, or your doctor, for more information. Don't start taking antibiotics unless advised to do so by your doctor or by health authorities.

    Sources: Centers for Disease Control, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

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