What is Anthrax, how dangerous is it and why is the US so concerned about sending out samples?

Since the first vaccine to fight Anthrax was developed in 1881, mortality rates in those who are infecteed by the bacteria are extremely low

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The announcement that the Pentagon will launch an investigation into the handling of anthrax samples after some were accidentally sent to an nine US states, a military base in South Korea and an Australian laboratory seven years ago, resulted in a government statement assuring the public’s safety.

Many of the laboratories were supposed to be delivered dead samples of the bacteria and it is unclear as to why it was shipped to Australia.

But just what is Anthrax and what is the risk that it poses to the public, if any?

What is Anthrax?

Anthrax is  an acute disease which is caused by Bacillus Anthracis, the bacterium. The bacterium form spores that can lie dormant in extremely harsh conditions, reactivating when they are inhaled, ingested or come into contact with a skin lesion.

Because they can survive in such harsh climates, Anthrax spores have been weaponised by at least five countries: Britain, Japan, the United States, Russia and Iraq.

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US Coast Guard hazardous material workers in protective suits and breathing systems stand together before entering the sealed US Senate hart building as contamination tests continue searching for anthrax spores inside the US Capitol building in Washington,DC (credit: Paul J. Richards/ Getty)

What kind of symptoms does an infected person have?

Humans can present with cold or flu-like symptoms for several days before pneumonia and severe respiratory collapse whioch often proves fatal if the spores affect their pulmonary system.

In other circumstances, goastrointestinal consumption of bacteria can cause vomiting of blood, acute inflammation of the intestinal tract and diarrhea.

Anthrax's use as a weapon for bioterrorism

In 2001, a week after the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Centre, five letters containing powdered anthrax were mailed to media outlets in New York. Three weeks later, another two letters were sent to US senators. The attacks killed five people in total.

Anthrax, once in the environment, can be spread about the population when it comes into contact with clothes or shoes. The body of someone who had live Anthrax spores at the time can also spread them.

Is it common and are people at risk?

In most instances, unless deliberately targeted, cases of Anthrax are rare after a vaccine for the disease was developed in 1881.

Although Anthrax spores can live for long periods, placing contaminated items in boiling water for 30 minutes has been shown to effectively kill the bacteria.

Similarly, in the wake of the 2001 letters in the United States, a student developed a theory, later published, that ironing letters for five minutes using a domestic iron was an effective way to decontaminate the mail.

Anthrax is also the name of an American thrash metal band.

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