You've Got What?
How infectious diseases are spread and simple and practical advice for preventing the spread of infection in the home and community
Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by bacteria called Bacillus anthracis. The anthrax bacterium produces spores (small resistant cells) which are capable of surviving for many years in the environment. Anthrax most commonly occurs in wild or domesticated warm-blooded grazing animals such as sheep and cattle, but can infect humans.
Anthrax is a notifiable condition1
Anthrax is a very rare disease in Australia, and usually occurs in farmers or other people who have close contact with animals or their products, especially wool, animal hair or skins. Infection can involve the skin if the bacteria enter a cut or abrasion. Infection can also occur if spores are inhaled or if meat from an infected animal is eaten.
Anthrax is a potential agent for use in biological warfare.
Symptoms of anthrax vary depending on how the disease was contracted.
Cutaneous anthrax is anthrax initially involving the skin. It begins as a raised itchy bump resembling an insect bite, which then develops into a vesicle (blister), then into a painless ulcer with a characteristic black area in the centre (see image). There is usually marked swelling around the area and lymph glands in the adjacent area may swell. Up to 20% of untreated people may die. Deaths from cutaneous anthrax are rare with appropriate antibiotic treatment.
Image courtesy Public Health Image Library (PHIL), Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC-USA)
Inhalational anthrax may occur when spores are breathed in. Inhalation anthrax may initially resemble flu-like illness, but after several days severe breathing problems and shock may develop. Without treatment, death usually occurs 1 to 2 days after the onset of severe symptoms.
Intestinal anthrax may occur following eating contaminated meat. Symptoms may include: nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting, fever, abdominal pain, vomiting of blood and severe diarrhoea. Up to 60% of people with intestinal anthrax will die without treatment.
Anthrax is usually diagnosed by isolating Bacillus anthracis from the blood, skin lesions or respiratory secretions.
(time between becoming infected and developing symptoms)
Usually 1 to 7 days, but can be up to 2 months.
(time during which an infected person can infect others)
Person-to-person transmission of anthrax is very rare and has been reported only with cutaneous anthrax.
Articles and soil contaminated with anthrax spores may remain infective for decades.
Treatment with antibiotics is essential, particularly for inhalational anthrax. In some situations preventative antibiotics may also be given to people who are suspected to have been exposed to anthrax spores.
1 – In South Australia the law requires doctors and laboratories to report some infections or diseases to SA Health. These infections or diseases are commonly referred to as 'notifiable conditions'.
Image - Anthrax lesion on the skin of the forearm Image courtesy Public Health Image Library (PHIL) Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC-USA)