Perhaps the most feared biological weapon at a terrorist’s disposal is the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, or anthrax.
Anthrax is a major concern because it is extremely deadly, stores easily, is relatively easy to synthesize, and can be delivered on a large scale killing large numbers of people.
The anthrax bacteria can only survive for 24 hours or less outside a host’s body. The problem with Bacillus anthracis is that it forms spores in this situation, which basically involves a dormant phase with a protective shell. These spores can lie dormant for centuries, then become active again once inside a host.
How does one contract anthrax?
Anthrax can be contracted from the air, from food, and through the skin.
If inhaled, initial symptoms are similar to the flu: coughing, headache, fever, chest discomfort, tiredness, and muscle aches.
Once in the lungs, the anthrax spores “wake up” and begin producing cell-damaging toxins which destroy lung tissue. The lungs then fill with fluids, which interferes with oxygenation of the blood.
From the lungs, the bacteria easily enter the blood stream and the infection then becomes systemic, which is usually fatal.
If contracted through food, usually in the form of tainted meat, initial symptoms resemble food poisoning: nausea, fever, vomiting, abdominal pain, and sore throat.
Later, the abdominal pain worsens and abdominal swelling is noted, along with bloody diarrhea and an ulcerated tongue.
Ulcerations also form along the stomach and intestines where the bacteria spores make contact.
Just as with lung infections, the spores now become active and begin producing cell-damaging toxins which destroy gastrointestinal tissue before spreading to the rest of the body.
If the skin has been exposed to anthrax, it develops small sores that later turn ulcerous. The ulcers eventually develop a black scab in the center.
Inhaled anthrax bacteria is usually fatal, whereas anthrax from food is about 50% fatal and infection from skin is approximately 20% fatal.
Immediate antibiotic treatment is critical before the bacteria begin producing the deadly toxins. This is imperative because even though the drugs kill the bacteria, there is no stopping the fatal toxin once it is produced.
Anthrax is not contagious.