Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


What is anthrax?

Many people anticipate the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington are not the end of the story. Only a month later, Americans are on edge, leery of more attacks. A new fear, this time in the form of a tiny but deadly bacterium known as anthrax, has gripped the nation.

Anthrax cases have been discovered in Florida, New York and Nevada, leading people to believe America may already be under a bio-terrorism threat from an unknown culprit.

Anthrax is an infectious disease caused by the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis. Early signs of an anthrax infection usually occur within seven days of contraction and can be transmitted three ways: through skin contact or through inhaling or eating the spores.

The most common form of anthrax is cutaneous, acquired through skin contact. This is the type NBC anchor Tom Brokaw’s personal assistant is suffering from. The woman, a long-time Brokaw employee, is responding to antibiotic treatment.

Cutaneous anthrax, contracted through breaks in the skin, is the least deadly of the three forms. After infecting its victim, an itchy lesion resembling a bug bite develops on the skin. Within two days the lesion blisters and turns into a painless black ulcer around 1-3 centimeters in diameter.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services, about 20 percent of untreated cases are fatal, although it is curable with antibiotic treatment.

Dr. Jeff Davis, state epidemioligist for the Communicable Diseases Bureau, said if a terrorist attack occurred in Wisconsin, cutaneous would be the most likely form.

“About 95 percent of reported anthrax cases are cutaneous,” Davis said. “In [one recently reported outbreak] the person had a break in the skin, so the lesion developed.”

Davis said the medical community has anticipated bio-terrorist attacks in the past and is prepared to handle a situation if one arises.

“We’ve been involved with the [Center for Disease Control] regarding public health preparedness against bio-terrorism for around five years,” Davis said.

Another way of contracting anthrax is through inhalation, which is a more deadly form of the disease.

The anthrax spores, after being inhaled through the nose, can descend into the lungs and replicate. Early symptoms are similar to the common cold, such as coughing, but after several days the victim develops breathing problems and shock. Death can occur as quickly as one to two days after the initial symptoms.

Davis said because inhalation anthrax is very fatal, it is necessary to treat it immediately with antibiotics if there is a possibility of contraction.

“You need to treat [inhalation anthrax] pretty early because there is not as much time before there would be serious symptoms,” Davis said.

To respond to a terrorist or biological attack in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott McCallum recently established an anti-terrorist task force. Madison’s counter-terrorist measures were specifically tested last Friday, when the city experienced four separate bio-terrorist scares. While all were over suspicious pieces of mail, none of them turned out to contain anthrax.

Steve Potter, a Meriter Hospital disaster planner, said anthrax is fairly easy to treat if detected early, and the country is prepared to handle a moderate number of outbreaks.

“A single case of anthrax is no problem,” Potter said. “But once you start getting into the tens of hundreds it starts becoming a problem.”

The greatest anthrax related concern is over planes known as crop dusters, which terrorists could fly over a densely populated city and release an airborne version of the bacteria.

Potter said contagious diseases such as smallpox could be more lethal than anthrax, which is not contagious. Although smallpox can be found only in two labs worldwide, if released it could quickly develop into a nightmarish scenario because of its contagious nature.

UW-Madison medical professor Dennis Macki said Wisconsin is prepared to deal with a bio-terrorist attack if it occurs, but said the state cannot entirely eliminate the threat.

“There’s nothing you can do to prevent it,” Macki said. “But you can never be over-prepared.”

There is a vaccine for anthrax currently being given to U.S. military personnel, which is about 93 percent effective. However, the vaccine does have side effects, and requires an annual shot to keep up the immunity.

Potter said because of the side effects, cost and probability of an anthrax attack, it is not realistic to vaccinate everyone for the disease.

“I don’t anticipate anthrax being spread on a large scale throughout Wisconsin,” Potter said. “Choosing not to vaccinate everyone is balanced off by the risk of being attacked by anthrax.”

There are several antibiotics used to treat anthrax. Penicillin is the most common medication. Antibiotics such as ciprofloxacin can be used against inhalation anthrax if given early enough.

Patients who are suspected to have contracted the disease are given the antibiotics immediately as a precautionary measure.

However, Macki said because of Wisconsin’s location and its relatively few large cities, the state has less to worry about.

“Terrorists like to do spectacular things,” Macki said. “They might possibly decide to attack Madison or Milwaukee, but it’s not nearly as high of a priority risk.”

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