Anthrax: It’s Not Old News

Bacteria Bacillus anthracis, the causative agent of anthrax disease.

Learn how new anthrax research by CDC’s Division of Laboratory Sciences could save lives.

Anthrax may bring to mind the 2001 attack on America through letters contaminated with spores. However, anthrax is not old news. Many cases have occurred in humans and animals since the letter incidents.

For example, a dancer in New York became sick after working with a contaminated animal hide to make traditional African drums. His infection likely came from breathing in the spores that cause anthrax while working with the animal hide in a stuffy space.

Anthrax, which can occur naturally in soil, also has killed thousands of animals, from cattle in North Dakota to reindeer in Russia.

What Is Anthrax?

Anthrax is a serious disease caused by bacteria known as Bacillus anthracis, and has been documented as far back as 700 BC.

Animals can become infected from spores in contaminated soil, plants, or water. When animals die from anthrax, their bodies decay and leave spores in the area for decades.

People also can become sick with anthrax when spores get into their body. Then bacteria quickly multiply and release toxins, which attack and can ultimately kill the body if left untreated.

Recently, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) studied levels of anthrax toxins after anthrax inhalation in animals. They found three stages of anthrax toxins in the blood, matching the three stages of disease in people and animals—early, intermediate, and late. Comparing levels of the toxins in all the stages helped them understand anthrax better.

New Research Could Save Lives

CDC scientists collaborated with the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and Battelle’s Biomedical Research Center in Ohio to learn new information about toxin levels during anthrax progression. Their joint study on “Comprehensive characterization of toxins during progression of inhalation anthrax in a non-human primate model” was recently published in PLoS Pathogens.

“This study provides new details of anthrax progression that have the potential to improve treatment and save lives,” says lead author Anne Boyer, PhD, a research chemist with CDC’s Division of Laboratory Sciences.

Cure Rate Highest in Early Stage

Anthrax can be deadly if left untreated. The cure rate is highest in the early stage, when toxin levels first appear. However, since anthrax is rare, health care officials might not suspect it at first, which could delay appropriate treatment.

In the second stage, symptoms continue as the disease progresses. The chance for survival is still possible, but aggressive medical treatment is needed, such as drainage of pleural fluid around the patient’s lungs and mechanical ventilation to help with breathing.

The chance for survival dramatically drops in the third stage, when toxin levels quickly increase.

Progression depends more on the levels of anthrax toxins than on the length of time they have been in the patient’s body, according to Boyer. This is why early diagnosis is so important.

CDC’s Division of Laboratory Sciences, in collaboration with CDC’s Bacterial Special Pathogens Branch, continuously researches anthrax and other toxins with advanced technology to diagnose, treat, and prevent diseases throughout the world.