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  • Writer's pictureMed Insider

What is Anthrax?

By Nicole Blattman


  • Anthrax is an infectious disease caused when spores of the bacteria, Bacillus anthracis, enter the host body.

  • There are four types of infections: cutaneous, inhalation, gastrointestinal, and injection.

  • Anthrax historically has been used as a bioweapon.

  • Since the 19th century, vaccines and treatments for anthrax have been developed.


It is often said that, back in 1440 BC, 10 plagues were inflicted on Egypt. Water turned into blood, darkness became constant, and hail fell from the sky. While some see these events as miraculous or even lies, others believe that they have scientific roots. Particularly, scholars have theorized that the fifth plague of Egypt, which caused sickness and death of livestock, was caused by Bacillus anthracis, a bacteria more commonly known as anthrax. This bacteria originated in Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia, but has since spread to the Caribbean, Central and South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Central and Southwestern Asia, and Southern and Eastern Europe.

Transmission of Anthrax

Anthrax is not a contagious disease. Rather, humans become infected when spores of the anthrax bacteria enter the body. Spores are a resistant form of the bacteria that are able to withstand harsh conditions, making it quite difficult to kill them. When these spores contaminate one’s food or water or find their way into cuts or scrapes, a person can become infected.

Types and Symptoms of Anthrax

There are four types of anthrax, differentiated based on their transmission method:

  • Cutaneous anthrax is the most common and least dangerous type of infection. This results when spores infect a cut or a scrape. This form of anthrax has about a 20% mortality rate.

    • Symptoms: swelling and blisters around the wound that forms a black scab after a couple of days

  • Inhalation anthrax is the most deadly type of infection. This results when a person breathes in the spores. This form of anthrax has about an 80% mortality rate.

    • Symptoms: fever, malaise, headache, cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, shock

  • Gastrointestinal anthrax is a rare form of infection, resulting when a person eats raw or undercooked meat from an anthrax-infected animal. Gastrointestinal anthrax has a 25-75% mortality rate.

    • Symptoms: nausea and vomiting (possibly bloody), bloody diarrhea

  • Injection Anthrax is mostly seen in drug users, injection anthrax results when spores are injected directly into the body. Injection anthrax has about a 30% mortality rate.

    • Symptoms: similar to cutaneous anthrax, swelling and blisters can occur around the injection site, but present faster and deeper into the skin or muscle


Anthrax has been used in the past as a bioweapon, a microorganism or toxin that is released with the intention to cause death and disease. It was first used as a bioweapon in the 1900s during World War I when the German army infected livestock and animals that were intended to be traded with the Allies. In 2001, anthrax spores were sent through the mail to US senators and media figures along with threatening messages promising the death of America and Israel. The recipients of the spores as well as workers in the postal service became infected. Eventually, the culprit of these attacks was found to be Bruce Ivins, a researcher working on an anthrax vaccine who wanted to bring more attention to the work he was doing.


The first anthrax vaccine was created back in 1881 by Louis Pasteur. The vaccine introduced a weakened form of the bacteria into the host. Later, Max Sterne developed a live spore vaccine that is regularly used to vaccinate animals. Animal workers began being vaccinated in the 1950s, and they are now vaccinated with an updated version that was released in the 1970s. In 1994, penicillin became the standard treatment for anthrax. Today, the Center for Disease Control has also instituted bioterrorism prevention and preparedness protocols.



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