Anthrax: History and Hazards

| February 28, 2017

Anthrax is a disease caused by the bacteria Bacillus anthracis, and has been known since antiquity. The disease’s name comes from the Greek word for “coal,” because the black lesions that develop on the skin resemble coal. Robert Koch, a German doctor, identified the anthrax bacterium in 1875, a discovery that won him the 1905 Nobel Prize for medicine. Anthrax is spread by bacterial spores, which can stay inert for decades in the soil. (Anthrax spores were commonly used in biological warfare programs and remain a major bioterrorism threat, such as in the anthrax attacks of 2001.) It is extremely rare for anthrax to be spread from person to person.

Most commonly, the method of transmission is from contact with infected animals, or animal products, such as fur, hides or undercooked meat. Those most at-risk for contracting anthrax are people who work directly with animals, such as lab workers, livestock handlers, farmers, and veterinarians. An anthrax vaccine exists. If anthrax is contracted, early antibiotics treatment is essential to curing the disease.

The best way to prevent anthrax exposure in workers is to work with animals or animal products from the U.S., or to use imported products that have undergone proper inspection. A clean, well-ventilated working environment is essential to preventing anthrax exposure. Personal protective equipment, including a N-95 face mask, eye protection, and gloves, are all indicated.

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