Learn about anthrax, and evade hysteria

The thought of potential biological weapons such as anthrax, smallpox or pneumonic plague uncontrollably spreading across the country, to many Americans sounds like a plot from a sci-fi movie. Recent threats of bioterrorism – two anthrax cases in Florida, three in New York and one in New Jersey – have made the threat of exposure a reality for many. In some cities, people are reported to have purchased gas masks and hoarded antibiotics to prepare for anthrax exposure. Despite the frenzy, medical professionals assure that they have things under control, and Americans are not in immediate danger.

“[Hoarding antibiotics] is depleting the supply for people who need them for things they currently have, not for what they might get,” University of Alaska Anchorage's Student Health Services Diane Bowland, RN, MPH said. “It's pretty unlikely that any of us would be exposed to anthrax, so there really shouldn't be a concern.”

Currently, the public does not have access to the vaccine, which has been administered only to military personnel and people likely to be exposed to anthrax spores, such as veterinarians, lab workers and those who work with cattle. This vaccine protects against anthrax that is acquired through the skin and it is believed that it would also be effective against inhaled spores. However, to be effective, the first shot must be given weeks prior to anthrax exposure. Bowland says the antibiotics doctors are using in treating unvaccinated anthrax exposures – ciprofloxacin (Cipro), penicillin and doxycycline – are effective.

Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by the spore-forming bacterium bacillus anthracis. Anthrax is usually found in wild and domestic cattle, sheep, goats, camels and antelopes. Bowland says anthrax is “not easily transmitted from person to person.” One cannot get anthrax by touching someone or visiting someone who has been exposed to anthrax. The disease can only be contracted by directly touching anthrax spores, inhaling the spores or ingesting food containing the spores. During and after exposure, anthrax produces a toxin, which is what makes it lethal. Symptoms vary depending upon how the disease is contracted, but they can appear within seven days.

Most cases are contracted by touch, cutaneous exposure, whereby the bacterium enters a cut or abrasion on the skin. What starts as a raised, itchy bump that resembles a black widow spider bite, within one to two days develops into a blister. A painless ulcer then forms with a black dying area in the center. Antibiotic treatment can lessen the severity when cutaneously exposed. According to documentation from the CDC, however, 20 percent of cases will result in death if not treated immediately with antibiotics. In severe cases, where the blood stream is invaded, the disease may be fatal.

The intestinal form of anthrax can occur by consuming contaminated meat. This is cutaneous anthrax, where the spores invade the bloodstream through a preexisting lesion in the walls of the intestinal tract. The bacteria usually spread from the lesion to the lymphatic system. The intestinal tract will become severely inflamed. Look for initial signs of nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting and fever, followed by abdominal pain, vomiting of blood and severe diarrhea. Intestinal anthrax results in 25 to 60 percent mortality cases.

If anthrax spores are inhaled, referred to as woolsorters' disease, initial symptoms may resemble the common cold. After several days, the symptoms may progress to severe breathing problems, chest pain and shock. Antibiotics can be given to unvaccinated individuals exposed within 24 hours to prevent the bacteria from spreading to the lymphatic system.

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Director of Student Health Services Daryl Young, RN, says that a person's chances of contracting anthrax disease are less than being hit by lightning or winning the lottery.

“People could stay safe by being aware of the facts,” Young said. “Don't go lock yourself away because of terrorist threats. We can anticipate and be prepared, but we can't quit living.”

Recent exposures have been via contaminated mail. The CDC, United States Postal Service and FBI have released criteria by which to identify suspect parcels and handling procedures.

If a person thinks he or she has received a biological or chemical threat by mail, it's important not to handle the parcel more than necessary. Ensure that everyone who has touched the mail piece washes his or her hands with soap and water. Call the police immediately. Place all items worn when in contact with the parcel in plastic bags, and keep them wherever the clothes are removed. Have them available for law enforcement agents, and provide a list for the police indicating the names and contact information for all people who have been exposed to the parcel.

Further information can be obtained by visiting the following Websites:http://www.cdc.gov, http://www.fbi.gov, and http://www.usps.gov.