Anthrax information for general practitioners
Anthrax is caused by a spore forming bacterium, Bacillus anthracis. It is primarily a disease of grazing herbivores such as sheep and cattle, which are infected through ingestion of soil contaminated by anthrax spores. The spores then germinate to produce the vegetative forms, which multiply eventually killing the host. Bacilli are shed in massive numbers as the animal dies; they sporulate rapidly on exposure to air. Anthrax spores are profoundly resistant to desiccation, heat, irradiation etc and can remain dormant in some types of soil for decades.
- is the most common form of naturally occurring human anthrax
- is acquired by inoculation of spores into skin abrasions eg. when handling untreated animal hides
- usually occurs on exposed sites such as hands, forearms, face and neck
- has an incubation period of 1-7 days during which the spores germinate
- initial lesion is a pruritic macule or papule surrounded by local oedema, which soon evolves into an ulcer surrounded by vesicles, followed by the development of a depressed black eschar, often associated with extensive local oedema
- neither the ulcer nor the eschar are painful (distinguishes from cellulitis)
- responds promptly to antibiotics, prognosis usually excellent. The eschar sloughs off after 1-2 weeks, usually with no permanent scar
- direct exposure to secretions from cutaneous anthrax lesions may result in secondary cutaneous anthrax.
- a rare form of human anthrax, acquired by the ingestion of inadequately cooked contaminated meat
- during an incubation of 1-7 days, the spores germinate in the GI tract leading to either oropharyngeal (oral or oesophageal ulcers with regional lymphadenopathy, oedema and sepsis) or abdominal (nausea, vomiting and bloody diarrhoea progressing to an acute abdomen with septicaemia) syndromes
- GI anthrax complicated by septicaemia has a poor prognosis regardless of antibiotic therapy.
- a rare cause of naturally occurring human anthrax. However, could result from a deliberate release of large quantities of spores in an aerosol
- occurs when very fine spore-bearing particles reach the alveoli
- alveolar macrophages destroy some spores; the remainder reach, via lymphatics, the mediastinal lymph nodes
- spores germinate in the mediastinal nodes after an incubation period usually of 1-7 days, but on occasion up to 60 days following the exposure
- initial symptoms following inhalation of spores are non-specific and flu-like; followed 2-4 days later by sudden deterioration with high fever, acute respiratory failure and shock
- bronchopneumonia does not occur in inhalation anthrax, and therefore sputum samples are of little use in making the diagnosis
- antibiotics may be effective if administered early in the prodrome; once respiratory or septicaemic symptoms develop the disease is usually fatal, sometimes within hours
- airborne transmission of anthrax from person to person does not occur; standard (universal) precautions alone, without isolation, are all that is necessary in caring for a patient with inhalation anthrax.
- all 000 calls about such incidents are promptly assessed by a response team using threat assessment guidelines
- in most incidents the assessment indicates a false alarm, of no risk
- some incidents are assessed as low risk; unopened packages will nevertheless be removed for opening under appropriate conditions
- those at immediate risk are decontaminated (ie. showered) by the emergency services, primarily to reduce the risk of cutaneous anthrax
- samples from the environment are collected by the emergency services for examination
- the health service involved in the incident then collects the necessary contact details, and because of the (albeit remote) possibility of inhalation of spores, considers commencing prophylactic antibiotics (usually ciprofloxacin).
- Heymann, D., ed. 2008. Control of Communicable Diseases Manual, (19th Ed). Washington, DC: American Public Health Association.
- National Health and Medical Research Council, 2008. The Australian Immunisation Handbook(9th Ed.) Canberra: National Capital Printing.
- Anthrax. WHO fact sheet number 264; October 2001.
- Anthrax: Guidelines for preparedness, response and management following deliberate release of Bacillus anthracis. 2005. Commonwealth of Australiahttp://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/health-emergency-anthrax-guidelines-cnt.htm (accessed March 2010).
For further information please contact the nearest public health unit.
Last updated: 21 March, 2011