Livestock may become infected by eating or inhaling anthrax spores. Humans, especially farmers and individuals who work in slaughterhouses, may develop cutaneous anthrax through skin exposure to infected animals.
Humans can also get inhalational anthrax by breathing in material contaminated with the bacteria. Inhalational anthrax can be deadly.
Anthrax infection is usually diagnosed by identifying the bacteria within skin blisters, blood, or other body fluids. The anthrax serology test can determine if a person has been previously exposed to Bacillus anthracis.
The anthrax bacterium is a potential biological weapon. In 2001, bioterrorist activities involving the U.S. Postal Service infected 22 people with anthrax; 7 survivors had confirmed cutaneous anthrax disease. However, most bio-terrorism experts have concluded that it is technologically difficult to use anthrax effectively as a weapon on a large scale.
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Inglesby TV, O'Toole T, Henderson DA, et al. Anthrax as a Biological Weapon, 2002. JAMA. 2002;287:2236-2252.
Lucey D. Anthrax. In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R. Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier; 2005: chap 324.
Reviewed By: Linda Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington School of Medicine; Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.