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Anthrax: The Story Behind The Killer "White Powder"

Updated on October 12, 2009

Everyone has heard of anthrax, that "white powder" which, once weaponized can be sent by mail and kill virtually on contact, but did you know anthrax can survive for over 1000 years? Did you know anthrax can survive a bomb blast? Do you know the cause of one recent outbreak of anthrax?

Anthrax is a disease caused by the bacteria Bacillus anthracis and originating in livestock. It is mainly transmitted to humans through cuts in the skin of people who work with infected livestock. This form of anthrax is known as cutaneous anthrax. It is also transmitted through contact with the hide, wool or hair of infected animals. In rare cases it can also be contracted through inhalation, known as pneumonic anthrax and even by eating meat that has not been cooked well enough.

Once anthrax is contracted, the infected person will develop a rash which will then form black scabs within a few days. If it is not treated the bacteria may enter the bloodstream via the lymphatic system. It will then produce a toxin that can be toxic. If anthrax is not treated, anywhere between 5 and 20 percent of cases are fatal.

The treatments for anthrax is antibiotics. If these are administered quickly the anthrax can be completely destroyed within any adverse effects on the infected.

Anthrax can be controlled by vaccination. People likely to be in contact with a source of anthrax, such as animal carcasses, are usually vaccinated. Because of this, very few cases of anthrax are seen in general.

About a decade ago an unusual outbreak of anthrax occurred. Usually these outbreaks find sources such as people who work with animals or even animal hunters. But in this case no such source was found. The people involved had no direct connection and panic of an anthrax epidemic grew. Further investigation of the people involved found that they all used the same type of shaving brushes. It was found that these imported brushes were made of animal hair and were contaminated with anthrax bacteria. The people involved had used their shaving brushes, inadvertently putting the bacteria onto their faces. They had then shaved and the small surface cuts had allowed the bacteria to enter them.

Anthrax exists as a bacterial endospore. In this form it is thought to be able to survive for at least a 100 years. There is evidence that it can survive far longer than a mere century and even longer than a millennium.

An archeological dig on the site of an ancient village showed signs that it had been abandoned and then burnt to the ground after an epidemic of anthrax. Microbiologists found ceramic containers that had apparently been buried by the villagers before the village was burnt. In these containers they found viable anthrax spores. The village had been destroyed around the year 700. These spores had survived underground for over 1300 years.

In World War II British authorities became concerned that the Germans were planning to use bacteria as a new type of deadly weapon. In response to their fears they began to conduct tests of their own. The question they were trying to answer was: if we drop a bomb containing anthrax spores, will they survive? To try to answer the question they dropped 'anthrax bombs' onto Gruinard Island, an uninhabited island off the coast of Scotland. The answer to the question was yes, anthrax spores will survive being dropped from a bomb. And so the island was completely contaminated with these anthrax spores. British authorities claimed that the contaminated island would pose no health risk, provided it was not disturbed. However, in the Eighties an environmental group removed anthrax contaminated dirt from the island. They placed packages of it near the laboratories that had earlier developed the weapons. They threatened to continue distributing their packages of anthrax dirt throughout Britain until the island was decontaminated.

The island was then decontaminated by the British government, using formaldehyde and sea water. The island is now classed as safe and is believed to be free of anthrax spores.

Anthrax is potentially useful in biological warfare because it forms an endospore. An endospore is an inactive form of the bacteria that is resistant to heat, radiation, chemicals and almost everything else that will kill bacteria. Anthrax can be dropped in as part of a bomb and will survive the bomb blast. It could probably even survive if dropped in as a nuclear weapon. Everything else in the area would be killed, but the anthrax would survive and lie dormant. When conditions were good and life returned to the area anthrax would revive itself and infect that life returning. Very few bacteria form endospores. And very few of these are harmful, most are nonpathogenic bacteria that live in the soil. So the short answer to why anthrax is so commonly mentioned as a bacteria involved in biological warfare is because "it can survive the delivery process."

Anthrax is just one portion of the overall madness of biological weapons, but it may be the most well-known pathogen.

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    • Hal Licino profile image

      Hal Licino 8 years ago from Toronto

      It's the remnants of the Cold War lunacy when some of our planet's best minds were employed in working out ways to KILL US ALL. And they say that humanity is sane... :(

    • ethel smith profile image

      Eileen Kersey 8 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      All such scary stuff

    • Hal Licino profile image

      Hal Licino 8 years ago from Toronto

      My pleasure... now stay away from any powdery mail! :)

    • Big Brother profile image

      Alex Valis 8 years ago from Earth

      Great Hub, thanks. Alexander