The mention of anthrax causes instant panic. Reports out this week that the U.S. military inadvertently sent samples of live anthrax out to nine locations around the globe has people asking if a global health crisis is looming. "That is highly unlikely," says Sankar Swaminathan, MD, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases for University of Utah Health. "First of all, the government has reported all samples of live Bacillus anthracis bacteria, which causes anthrax, have been secured. Second, anthrax is only caused by direct contact with the bacteria; it is not contagious and cannot be spread from person-to-person like a cold or the flu."
So, what exactly is anthrax then? "Anthrax is an infectious disease caused by infection with a certain type of bacteria," says Swaminathan. "Those bacteria can form spores that stay dormant but alive in the soil for decades. When the spores germinate in the bodies of humans the bacteria can start growing and produce toxins, causing illness." Not all anthrax looks the same either. "The way the spores made their way into the body determines how symptoms manifest," says Swaminathan. "If they were inhaled, they can cause pneumonia and rapid worsening as was seen during the intentional releases in 2001. One can also get cutaneous anthrax when the bacteria infect the skin, causing lesions that turn black. One can also get gastrointestinal anthrax by eating undercooked, anthrax-contaminated meat."
As with most bacterial illnesses, anthrax is treated with a course of antibiotics. "It is important that treatment is started as soon as symptoms are seen," says Swaminathan. "This is especially true in cases of inhalational anthrax which can progress rapidly and has a high fatality rate." People may also be given antibiotics as a preventive measure when people are known to have been exposed, for example during a bioterror attack or a laboratory accident.
Swaminathan adds, "For most of the general public, anthrax is never going to be a realistic health concern."