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Answering questions about Anthrax

In the wake of the recent biological terrorism, a lecture on the who, what, why, where, and how’s of Anthrax was held in the Student Union, Wednesday, October 31, by Professor Cathy Wedeen of the Mills College Biology Department.

After asking the audience why anthrax might be used as a biological weapon as opposed to another form of bacteria, said Wedeem, “because it’s cheap, easy to come by, and easy to cultivate.” And unlike many other forms of bacteria, said Wedeem, anthrax exists in an airborne form. The disadvantages of using anthrax are that it is not infectious, like the flu, and there is no person-to-person transmission. In other words, the only way to get anthrax is to come into contact with the spores.

Wedeem went on to say that if caught early, anthrax is very treatable with penicillin and other anti-biotics such as Ciproflaxin, which has been used to treat victims of the recent U.S. attacks. Cipro is used because it is a very new anti-biotic against which anthrax has not had a chance to develop immunities.

The reason that officials do not want to give Cipro to everyone as a precaution, said Wedeem, is the very real threat of anthrax mutating in form, rendering Cipro ineffective in the event of a true outbreak.

Anthrax comes from grazing mammals, said Wedeem, especially Bison and Cattle. When this animal dies, it’s cells-anthrax-are then exposed to air. The danger, said Wedeem, is that the anthrax cell is encapsulated, protecting it from immune systems that would normally immediately combat such a disease.

Anthrax gets into the system via a cut or scrape, an insect bite (extremely rare in the U.S.), eating contaminated or uncooked meat, or inhaling the airborne spores, said Wedeem, and three types of infections may result: Cutraneous (via the skin), Gastrointestinal (via the stomach), and Pulmoneous (via the lungs).

Cutraneous anthrax begins with a small pimple over a period of days that develops into a black, painless lesion a few millimeters wide. Easiest to treat and detect, said Wedeem, this form of the infection can be held at bay by one’s own strong immune system or antibiotics.

Gastrointestinal anthrax begins with a malaise, a low fever, and a stomach ache. Symptoms then pause only to be followed days later by a high fever, disorientation, and if untreated, shock and coma. This form of anthrax can be treated with anti-biotics as well, said Wedeem, and fortunately there is no example of this form in the U.S. to date.

Pulmoneous anthrax begins with viral-like aches and pains, fever, malaise, and fatigue, followed by coughing, chest pain and a difficulty breathing. This form of anthrax is treated with anti-biotics as well, but all forms of anthrax are potentially fatal if not treated in time, said Wedeem.