What is anthrax?

Anthrax is a serious infectious disease, usually found in farm animals, that has existed for tens of thousands of years. The bacterium that causes the illness, bacillus anthracis, creates spores which can survive in the environment. Grass eating animals such as cows, goats or sheep can be infected with the disease by eating these spores.

If anthrax spores get inside a body of an animal or human, they attack it in two ways. The spores cause a dangerous infection, but also produce a toxin that kills immune system cells. This toxin can be fatal to the body and may remain affective even after the infection has been treated.

Bacillus anthracis under the microscope.

How can anthrax be contracted?

There are three ways in which people can contract anthrax. They can be infected by spores entering a cut in the skin (subcutaneously), or by inhaling the spores, or by digesting them (gastro-intestinally). Humans who become infected with anthrax usually have eaten undercooked meat from an infected animal, or handled an infected animal.

There is little chance of this occurring in Ireland, which has been free from anthrax for many years. Like Scandinavia, Indonesia, Greenland and Belize, Ireland is considered by the World Health Organisation to be one of the countries with the highest rating of freedom from anthrax infection. In the UK, sporadic cases have been known to occur and one person was infected in 1995 with the illness. One person in Northern Ireland fell ill with anthrax in 1993.

What are the symptoms of anthrax?

Most cases of anthrax involve small cuts in the skin becoming infected by spores from wool or animal hides. The infection begins as an itchy bump in the skin, but within a couple of days develops into a painless ulcer up to an inch in diameter. The centre of the ulcer turns black as the tissue dies. If left untreated, about one in five such infections will be fatal, but most are easily treated with antibiotics.

If anthrax spores are inhaled, the symptoms can resemble a cold. After a few days, the patient may experience severe breathing difficulties and can lapse into shock. This form of anthrax exposure is quite dangerous and is very often fatal, without appropriate medical assistance.

When the spores are eaten, the intestinal tract becomes inflamed, provoking bouts of vomiting. Nausea and fever are followed by pain in the abdominal area, diarrhoea and vomiting blood. Gastro-intestinal anthrax can also be fatal without proper treatment.

How is anthrax treated?

Anthrax infection responds well to early treatment with a course of antibiotics. The majority of anthrax strains are resistant to some antibiotics, but tend to be sensitive to penicillin. Drug treatment normally lasts up to two months, as spores can remain in the lungs for some period of time. Some forms of anthrax have been created as biological weapons, but reports that they are resistant to antibiotic treatment have been proved false thus far.

A vaccine for anthrax infection is manufactured in the United States, but vaccination is currently only recommended for people working with anthrax in laboratories, or for certain military personnel.

Are we at risk from anthrax in Ireland?

Ireland is considered by the World Health Organisation to be one of the least likely countries on the planet in which anthrax could be contracted. No cases of the disease have been found in animals or humans in many years. The terrorist attacks on the US in September 2001 and subsequent cases of anthrax raised fears that the disease could be spread around the world, prompted countries, including Ireland, to ensure that sufficient stocks of penicillin and other treatments were in place.

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