Anthrax gets its name from the Greek word for coal, anthrakis, because
the skin form of the disease is characterized by lesions that turn jet-black.
The three forms of anthrax disease (skin or cutaneous, inhalation, and
gastrointestinal) are all caused by the same bacterium, Bacillus
When sprayed as a fine aerosol mist, anthrax could be a weapon of mass
destruction. An odorless, invisible cloud of anthrax could trigger thousands of
cases of inhalation anthrax, the most deadly form of the disease. Bioweapons
programs in the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Iraq mastered the ability to
Making a lethal anthrax aerosol requires access to advanced biotechnology,
which some experts believe is beyond the capability of most terrorists.
However, groups with substantial funding and expertise could acquire the needed
materials. Aum Shinrikyo, the cult infamous for releasing sarin gas in the
Tokyo subway, tried several times to disperse aerosols of anthrax. It's unclear
why the attacks failed to produce illness.
In the fall of 2001, several deadly anthrax terrorist attacks took place in the U.S.
All told, five people died and another 18 became infected, most from being in the
vicinity of anthrax-laced letters, but at least two from completely unknown means.
Experts identified the type of anthrax used in the attacks as the so-called Ames strain,
which was long thought to have originated in Ames, Iowa. Then, in January 2002,
investigators discovered a clerical error that revealed that the strain's origin
was not Iowa but Texas, where the bacterial strain turned up in a dead cow in 1981.
Authorities are still searching for the perpetrator of the attacks.
Skin infections begin as itchy bumps resembling insect bites, then develop into lesions about half an inch to a little over an inch in diameter. Lesions become covered by black scabs.
swollen lymph nodes
fever, chills, headache, nausea, vomiting
fluid in lungs, severe breathing difficulty
shock and respiratory failure
nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting, fever
abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, abdominal bleeding
How it would be spread
Letters with anthrax powder will cause only isolated cases of disease,
relatively few in number. Poisoning of food is difficult to achieve with
anthrax and is not considered likely. Aerosol spraying is the gravest threat.
Anthrax diseases are not contagious.
A variety of antibiotics can treat all three forms of the disease. Inhalation
anthrax, however, progresses so quickly that, once symptoms are clear, it may
be too late for drugs to prevent death.
The vaccine for anthrax used by the U.S. military is not currently available to
the general public. It is given in a series of six shots over 18 months. Annual
booster injections are recommended.