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Anthrax is caused by contact with the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, and it commonly infects hoofed animals, including cows, sheep, and goats. There are three main entry points for humans: through cuts in the skin, called cutaneous infections (mostly a problem for veterinarians and others who work with animals); by inhaling the anthrax spores (occurs most frequently when tanning hides or processing wool); or by eating meat contaminated with the bacteria.
In 2001, anthrax spores were sent through the U.S. Postal Service, infecting 22 people. Seven survivors had confirmed cases of cutaneous (skin) infection.
The symptoms of anthrax vary depending on the way the bacterium was transmitted. Symptoms of cutaneous anthrax usually appear 1 to 7 days after exposure and present as an itchy sore that looks something like an insect bite. It may blister and form a scab. There may be swelling surrounding the sore. The scab usually falls off within 2 weeks, but it may take longer for complete healing to take place. Symptoms of inhalation anthrax include fever, headache, shortness of breath, and chest pain. Symptoms of gastrointestinal anthrax are abdominal pain, bloody diarrhea, and nausea and vomiting.
Most people with anthrax are treated with one or more antibiotics. Those with cutaneous anthrax are treated for 7 to 10 days, while those with the other types of anthrax are treated for as long as 60 days. But anthrax is a serious disease, especially if it gets into the bloodstream. In those cases, it can result in death.
Clearly, the best way to prevent anthrax is to avoid exposure to the bacteria. If someone is exposed and does not yet have symptoms, preventive antibiotics may be given. A vaccine for anthrax is also available. It is typically given to military personnel and those at risk for exposure. The vaccine is given in a series of five doses.