What is anthrax?
Anthrax is an infection caused by a bacterium, Bacillus anthracis. The infection can take three forms depending on the affected part of the body: cutaneous (on the skin), inhalational, and gastrointestinal. Bacillus anthracis is a microorganism that lives in the soil as a spore. It is hardy and can lie dormant yet alive for many years. The bacterium primarily infects wild and domesticated grazing animals, such as deer, sheep, and goats. Humans can then become infected by handling the animals or their hair, hide, or meat.
Natural cases of human anthrax infection are rare in the United States. For the 45 years from 1955 through 1999, there were 236 reported cases of anthrax, and 224 of them were cutaneous.
Anthrax received substantial attention in 2001 when multiple people were exposed to anthrax spores sent through the US mail. Since then, procedures have been implemented to monitor hundreds of key postal distribution centers for bioterrorism agents such as anthrax in order to protect postal customers and employees.
Another high profile case involving anthrax occurred in 2006 when a New York City man was exposed while using imported goat hides to make traditional African drums.
The cases in 2001 are believed to have been intentionally caused and raised concerns about the use of anthrax as a weapon. Many countries have investigated and experimented with anthrax as a biological weapon. Anthrax is not transmitted from one human to another, but it makes a potentially effective weapon because it causes deadly infections and the B. anthracis spores are hardy enough to survive dissemination through various routes. These characteristics also make it a potential weapon for terrorists.