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Anthrax, disease of warm-blooded animals, including humans, caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis. Anthrax most commonly occurs in cattle and other plant-eating mammals, but it can also affect humans who come in contact with infected animals. The disease is not considered contagious, however, and person-to-person spread of the disease is highly unlikely. Vaccines can protect against anthrax, and antibiotics can treat the disease in its early stages.
Anthrax is a spore-forming bacterium . The spores have protective coats and can withstand extreme heat, drought, and other harsh conditions. They can live for centuries in soil. Anthrax spores also have the potential for use in biological warfare because of their ability to survive and because they spread easily in air and can be inhaled. Once the spores are inside the lungs, the bacteria develop and begin to multiply.
In humans, the disease can appear in three forms: cutaneous, inhalation, and gastrointestinal. The cutaneous, or external form, primarily involves the skin and is contracted mainly by those who handle contaminated hides, wool, or carcasses. The bacteria enter through a cut or other opening in the skin, and a dark, itchy bump that resembles an insect bite appears. The bump then develops into an open sore with a black area in the center. The cutaneous form of anthrax can be treated with antimicrobial drugs. Death results in about 20 percent of untreated cases. Veterinarians, mill workers, laboratory researchers, and other people at risk of exposure to anthrax are generally vaccinated against the disease.
Humans contract internal forms of anthrax by inhaling anthrax spores or by eating contaminated meat. People who work with animal hair and wool are most likely to inhale the spores, especially in areas where anthrax occurs in animals. Symptoms of inhaled anthrax initially resemble those of a cold or the flu—general aches and pains, fever, fatigue, cough, and mi...