Anthrax fact sheet
What is anthrax?
Suspected Anthrax is a notifiable disease.
Anthrax is a disease normally associated with plant-eating animals (sheep, goats, cattle, and to a lesser extent, swine). It is caused by the bacteria Bacillis anthracis and has been recognised as an illness for centuries. Once common where livestock were raised, it is now controlled through animal vaccination programs. Anthrax occurs mainly in countries where animals are not vaccinated. In many countries (such as Australia) it occurs infrequently, due to effective compulsory control measures. The form of the disease that health authorities are concerned that a bioterrorist attack might produce, is inhalation anthrax.
How anthrax is spread?
Human infection with anthrax usually results from direct contact with infected animals, or animal products such as wool, meat or hides. The spores can survive for long periods of time in certain soils, in animal products such as hair, hides and wool, and in feeds and fertilisers prepared from animals that died of anthrax.
Inhalation anthrax occurs when a person breathes in anthrax spores. As early as a day or two after exposure the spores begin to grow rapidly and the victim develops symptoms of the disease. There is no evidence of spread of the infection from person to person.
What are the symptoms of anthrax?
In humans, the disease occurs in two major forms. When infection takes place through the skin, sores (papules) develop within one to three days. These begin as small red swellings, which later develop into black depressions.
Inhalation of infective material causes pulmonary anthrax with flu-like symptoms. About 1-6 days after inhaling anthrax spores there would be a gradual onset of vague symptoms of illness such as fatigue, fever, mild discomfort in the chest and possibly a dry cough.
The symptoms would improve for a few hours or two to three days. Following that, there would be a sudden onset of difficulty in breathing, profuse sweating, cyanosis (blue coloured skin and lips) and shock. Infection acquired by inhalation can be fatal. With effective antibiotic treatment, few deaths occur.
How is anthrax diagnosed?
Blood tests are used to confirm the disease in people who have symptoms. Routine testing for people who may be concerned about the disease but who have no symptoms is currently not available.
Testing of environmental samples
Results of testing of samples taken from suspected materials take at least two days for confirmation.
Suspected human cases of anthrax can be treated effectively with appropriate antibiotics. Likewise, people who may have been exposed to anthrax are treated with antibiotics at the earliest possible stage to prevent the onset of symptoms and disease.
The USA manufactures a vaccine for anthrax, but this is not registered in Australia, as the vaccine is only recommended for those at high risk of exposure.
How is Australia preparing for a deliberate release of anthrax?
Preparation measures include:
- Training within health departments and with other agencies
- Putting in place medical treatment protocols suitable for a civilian population
- Ensuring the availability of appropriate pharmaceutical supplies
- Increasing diagnostic and health surveillance capability
- Development effective coordination and advisory arrangements
- Ensuring access to international developments.