June 29th, 2016 Sections: Health, News
Anthrax under an electronic microscope

Anthrax under an electronic microscope

There have been a number of reports in the local media that caught my attention … about Anthrax.

Every now and again we see stories in the media about contaminated meat being discovered in the bazaars with recommendations from the authorities to buy only from reputable sources where the meat has been probably examined, tested and certified as fit for human consumption … and should be well cooked.

Then, over the weekend, there were two outbreaks just over the border in Kazakhstan … resulting in two deaths and several people being hospitalized having tested positive for the presence of Bacillus anthracis – the bacteria that causes anthrax. Kyrgyzstan has decided to upgrade its border security, checking imports of meat from anywhere near the sites of the outbreak.

According to the CDC – The US government’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, humans as well as domestic and wild animals – such as cattle, sheep, goats, antelope, and deer – can become infected by inhaling or ingesting spores in contaminated soil, plants, or water. 

To be honest, I have never really known much about Anthrax … well, it’s not a very common – not the sort of thing you encounter every day.  Although I didn’t really aware of any details, I did know that it was serious …

  • Warning sign on Gruinard Island in Scotland - otherwise known as Anthrax Island

    Warning sign on Gruinard Island in Scotland – otherwise known as Anthrax Island

    As a child, I had heard something about Anthrax Island, (actually Gruinard Island), off the West coast of Scotland – which had become so infested with spores as a result of research during the Second World War – apparently looking into what preparations could be effected IF the enemy decided to use biological and/or chemical weapons … apparently the scientists decided there was nothing that could be done and the island was quarantined for 50 years … and cost a fortune (well, half a million pounds) to decontaminate the soil in the late 1980’s.

    • Interestingly, this isn’t the only candidate for the title  Anthrax Island … both the United States and the Soviet Union had their own island based research establishments where work on biological warfare and ‘Animal diseases’ was undertaken.
  • Then, following the events of 9/11 there were the anthrax scares when letters sent to government offices in America were discovered to contain white powder … and it was suspected to be Anthrax spores … whole government buildings went into lockdown and men in White BioHazard suits were seen combing the buildings …. scenes that you might expect to see in a film … not on the evening news.  Some 22 people developed anthrax after being exposed to spores sent through the mail, five of them died as a result of their infection.

So, what is Anthrax?

It is a rare, but serious illness caused by a type of bacteria, Bacillus anthracis, (which form spores that carry the possibility of infection).  Usually, anthrax bacteria enter the body through a wound in the skin, but it is also possible to become infected by eating contaminated meat or, simply, inhaling the spores.

As it happens, the bacteria that form Anthrax spores, occur naturally in soil in most parts of the world – although more commonly found in ‘hotspots’ (which tend to be in developing counties).  The spores can remain dormant for years, decades, possibly even centuries, until they find their way into a host.

Anthrax mainly affects animals, livestock and wild game, but … and here’s the rub … it can be transferred to humans who come into contact, (direct or indirect), with sick animals.  Apparently, there’s no evidence that anthrax can be transmitted from person to person (… although it is thought that it may be possible that lesions on the skin could be contagious through direct contact).

Typically, it takes a week for symptoms to develop following exposure to the spores – but that vary to anything between one day and sixty days.

Signs and symptoms vary … and will depend on how the animal or person was infected an can include:

Cutaneous anthrax – affecting the skin – perhaps acquired from close contact with infected animals, carcasses or animal products:

  • A raised, itchy bump resembling an insect bite that quickly develops into a painless sore with a black center
  • Swelling in the sore and nearby lymph glands

Complications can arise – usually as a result of secondary infections.

Gastrointestinal anthrax – which comes from ingesting, swallowing, the spores, can affect either the upper throat or the intestines:

  • flu-like symptoms – a high temperature, followed by throat ulcers and a visible swelling of the neck.
  • ulcers in the bowel, leading to nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite and high fever with abdominal pain, vomiting blood and bloody diarrhoea;

Inhaled anthrax – when the spores become airborne are then inhaled.  Those at risk of exposure to this form of Anthrax are people working with livestock or are involved in meat processing plants … but, there is sufficient evidence that anthrax spores could be weaponized … for example by terrorists …

There are two stages to this particular form of the disease:

  • a non-specific mild fever, malaise, muscle aches, dry cough and chest pain;
  • fever, acute shortness of breath, a harsh, grating sound when breathing and blue-tinged skin, rapidly leading to respiratory failure, shock, a drop in body temperature, and … death, if untreated.

Complications can arise leading to inflammation of the membranes and fluid covering the brain and spinal cord, resulting in massive bleeding (hemorrhagic meningitis).

Fortunately, as one expert put it, “Humans do have at least some resistance to anthrax . . . Not all exposed persons will become infected, not all infected persons will develop the disease, and not everyone who gets the disease will die as a result.”  Prompt treatment with antibiotics can cure most anthrax infections although Inhaled anthrax is more difficult to treat and can be fatal.

Antibiotics are fairly effective at treating most cases of Anthrax – although in the more serious cases of inhaled anthrax, intensive care support might be needed.

There are actually vaccines available for protection against the disease – the first one was developed by none other than Louis Pasteur in 1881, in response to an outbreak among livestock in France.  The vaccine doesn’t contain live bacteria and, so, can’t lead to infection … but it can cause side effects and isn’t recommended as suitable for children or older adults … in fact, it isn’t intended for the general public at all – it’s usually reserved for people in high-risk professions.

Apparently, the best form of prevention, according to the experts, is to avoid contact with infected animals … which is just one reason why people (visitors, tourists) are advised not to approach livestock or animals in the wild.



There is one comment. to “Anthrax”

  1. ian
    June 29th, 2016 at 15:26

    “This is a curable disease in case of timely treatment” –

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