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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)


Common Name(s) Anthrax
Scientific Name(s) Bacillus anthracis
Geography World wide in agricultural regions
Physical Attributes Encapsulated gram-positive, nonmotile, aerobic, spore-forming bacterial rod with a spore size of approximately 1 m x 2 m
Mode(s) of Transmission
  • Cutaneous: handling products from infected animals
  • Inhalation: inhaling spores from contaminated animal products
  • Intestinal: eating undercooked meat from infected animals
  • Likely BW Form(s) Aerosol
  • Cutaneous: skin infection begins with raised itchy bumps develops into vesicle then ulcer; lymph glands may swell
  • Inhalation: common cold symptoms; breathing problems and shocks
  • Intestinal: nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting, fever are followed by abdominal pain, vomiting of blood, and severe diarrhea
  • Host(s) Human; animals
    Vector/Dormant Form Occasionally horseflies; spores
    Incubation Period ~7 days
  • Cutaneous: 20% fatal if untreated; less than 1% if treated
  • Inhalation: almost alway; ~75% even with treatment
  • Intestinal: fatal in 25% to 60% of cases
  • Lethal Dose: 10,000 spores
  • Vaccine Vaccine is manufactured and distributed by BioPort, Corporation, Lansing, Michigan
    Treatment Antibiotics: tetracycline, erythromycin, chloramphenicol, gentamicin, and ciprofloxacin; penicillin in vitro

    Suggested treatment: prophylaxis with ciprofloxacin (500 mg po bid), or doxycycline (100 mg po bid) for 4 weeks

    Anthrax is a zoonotic disease caused by Bacillus anthracis, a Gram-positive, spore-forming, non-motile bacillus. Spore formation occurs only when exposed to oxygen, not inside living tissue. There are three types of anthrax: cutaneous anthrax, inhalation anthrax, and intestinal anthrax. About 95% of all human anthrax cases in the United States have been cutaneous anthrax.

    Cutaneous anthrax develops when a bacterial organism from infected animal tissues becomes deposited under the skin. When a patient contracts cutaneous anthrax, he or she develops a small elevated lesion on his skin which becomes a skin ulcer, frequently surrounded by swelling or edema. The lymph gland near the lesion may also swell from the infection. If the lesion occurs on the neck or on or about the eye, it may cause complications. The incubation period for cutaneous anthrax is from 1 to 7 days. When a patient does not receive an effective antibiotic, the mortality rate for cutaneous anthrax is 10-20%. With treatment, the mortality rate falls to less than 1%.

    Inhalation anthrax develops when the bacterial organism is inhaled into the lungs. A progressive infection follows. Since inhalation anthrax is usually not diagnosed in time for treatment, the mortality rate in the United States is 90-100%. A biological warfare attack with anthrax spores delivered by aerosol would cause inhalation anthrax, an extraordinarily rare form of the disease in nature.

    The intestinal disease form of anthrax may follow the consumption of contaminated meat and is characterized by an acute inflammation of the intestinal tract. Initial signs of nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting, fever are followed by abdominal pain, vomiting of blood, and severe diarrhea. Intestinal anthrax results in death in 25% to 60% of cases.

    A lethal dose of anthrax is considered to be 10,000 spores; 80 percent of a population that inhaled such a dose would die. Less than one millionth of a gram is invariably fatal within 5 days to a week after exposure. According to an estimate by the US Congress's Office of Technology Assessment, 100 kilograms of anthrax, released from a low-flying aircraft over a large city on a clear, calm night, could kill one to three million people.

    The disease begins after an incubation period varying from 1-6 days, presumably dependent upon the dose of inhaled organisms. Onset is gradual and nonspecific, with fever, malaise, and fatigue, sometimes in association with a nonproductive cough and mild chest discomfort. In some cases, there may be a short period of improvement. The initial symptoms are followed in 2-3 days by the abrupt development of severe respiratory distress with dyspnea, diaphoresis, strider, and cyanosis. Physical findings may include evidence of pleural effusions, edema of the chest wall, and meningitis. Chest x-ray reveals a dramatically widened mediastinum, often with pleural effusions, but typically without infiltrates. Shock and death usually follow within 24-36 hours of respiratory distress onset.

    An epidemic of inhalation anthrax in its early stage with nonspecific symptoms could be confused with a wide variety of viral, bacterial, and fungal infections. Progression over 2-3 days with the sudden development of severe respiratory distress followed by shock and death in 24-36 hours in essentially all untreated cases of inhalation anthrax. The presence of a widened mediastinum on chest x-ray, in particular, should alert one to the diagnosis. Other suggestive findings include chest-wall edema, hemorrhagic pleural effusions, and hemorrhagic meningitis. Other diagnoses to consider include aerosol exposure to SEB; but in this case onset would be more rapid after exposure (if known), and no prodrome would be evident prior to onset of severe respiratory symptoms. Mediastinal widening on chest x-ray will also be absent. Patients with plague or tularemia pneumonia will have pulmonary infiltrates and clinical signs of pneumonia (usually absent in anthrax).

    Almost all cases of inhalation anthrax in which treatment was begun after patients were symptomatic have been fatal, regardless of treatment. Historically, penicillin has been regarded as the treatment of choice, with 2 million units given intravenously every 2 hours. The vast majority of anthrax strains are sensitive in vitro to penicillin. Tetracycline and erythromycin have been recommended in penicillin-sensitive patients. However, penicillin-resistant strains exist naturally, and one has been recovered from a fatal human case. Moreover, it is not difficult to induce resistance to penicillin, tetracycline, erythromycin, and many other antibiotics through laboratory manipulation of organisms. All naturally occurring strains tested to date have been sensitive to erythromycin, chloramphenicol, gentamicin, and ciprofloxacin.

    Vaccines are available against some forms of anthrax, but their efficacy against abnormally high concentrations of the bacteria is uncertain. A licensed, alum-precipitated preparation of purified B. anthracis protective antigen (PA) has been shown to be effective in preventing or significantly reducing the incidence of inhalation anthrax. Limited human data suggest that after completion of the first three doses of the recommended six-dose primary series (0, 2, 4 weeks, then 6, 12, 18 months), protection against both cutaneous and inhalation anthrax is afforded. As with all vaccines, the degree of protection depends upon the magnitude of the challenge dose; vaccine-induced protection is undoubtedly overwhelmed by extremely high spore challenge.

    If there is information indicating that a biological weapon attack is imminent, prophylaxis with ciprofloxacin (500 mg po bid), or doxycycline (100 mg po bid) is recommended. If unvaccinated, a single 0.5 ml dose of vaccine should also be given subcutaneously. Should the attack be confirmed as anthrax, antibiotics should be continued for at least 4 weeks in all exposed.

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    Page last modified: 24-07-2011 03:44:34 ZULU