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Anthrax Information Page

     I have received some valuable information on anthrax, and I wanted to pass it along to you. Feel free to print it out and share it with other people that are concerned about what to do if exposed to it.

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What is anthrax?

     Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by the spore-forming Bacillus anthracis. It most commonly occurs in cattle, sheep, goats, camels and antelopes, but can also occur in humans when they are exposed to infected animals, tissue from infected animals, or direct exposure to the spores through a criminal or bioterrorist incident.

How is anthrax transmitted?

     Anthrax infection can occur in three forms: cutaneous (skin), inhalation, and intestinal.
     Cutaneous: Anthrax infections occur when the bacterium enters a cut or abrasion on the skin. This happens when handling contaminated wool, hides, leather or hair products of infected animals, which it was called "Woolsorters Disease." It begins as a raised itchy bump that resembles an insect bite, but soon turns into a painless ulcer, one to three centimeters in diameter, usually with a black center in the middle. Lymph glands in the adjacent area may also swell. About 20 percent of untreated cases can result in death.
     Inhalation: The anthrax spores average between 2-6 microns in diameter, which make them ideal to enter the human respiratory tract. Humans may become infected if they inhale 8,000 - 10,000 spores and it may be less for small children or the elderly. This seems like a lot and it is difficult to aerosolize; however 25,400 microns can fit on an average postage stamp. Incubation of the spores can take 1-6 days but can occur as late as 40 days later, which happened in the Sverdlovsk outbreak. The flu-like symptoms last for 1-3 days, which is followed by a brief period of improvement. Rapid deterioration follows quickly with the patient displaying a high fever, dyspnea, stridor, cyanosis, and shock possibly resulting in death if treatment is not started within 48 hours of the initial appearance of symptoms.
     Intestinal: This form of anthrax may follow the consumption of contaminated meat and is characterized by an acute inflammation of the intestinal tract. Initial signs include nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting and fever, followed by abdominal pain, vomiting blood and severe diarrhea. Between 25% and 60% of cases are fatal.

Is there a treatment for anthrax?

     Doctors can prescribe antibiotics, which should be initiated early. Ciprofloxacin is the most common, however a variety of different antibiotics have been successfully prescribed for the recent exposures. An anthrax vaccine has been licensed for use in humans and it is reported to be 93% effective. However, the vaccine must be administered in 6 injections over an 18-month period and the current stockpile is designated primarily for the military.

How do you decontaminate mail?

     Laying a damp cloth over the item of mail and using a steam iron on the cloth can kill anthrax spores. It is the combination of the moisture and the high temperature of the steam that kills the spores. This has been confirmed by a colleague of mine, Dr. Ken Alibek, form deputy chief of the Biopreparat of the former Soviet Union's biological warfare program. He is one of the world's leading experts on anthrax.
     Hospitals have used steam sterilizers for decades to sterilize surgical instruments and equipment. In recent years hospitals have turned to the use of gamma radiation for killing bacteria on hospital equipment, especially plastic syringes that would be damaged if heated through the use of steam. Ken stated that gamma rays could be used effectively for killing anthrax spore in bulk mail. There are a few R&D organizations that are in the process of designing gamma radiation devices that can be adapted for this purpose.
     It is very unlikely that an individual will be exposed to the anthrax spores by handling the mail if it remains sealed, nor will the spores be passed on to other mail. However, the best procedure to follow if you suspect anthrax or another hazardous material in an envelope or package is to call in the experts, i.e., law enforcement and the HAZMAT team.



Bruce A. Thompson, M.A., M.P.A.
Senior Emergency Management Consultant
EDS Emergency Management Services
13600 EDS Drive, A2S-D49
Herndon, VA 20171
Ph: (703) 742-1383

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