Anthrax: Questions, Answers and Resources

Cultures of tissue or fluids from affected areas, which could include fluid from a skin sore or sputum coughed up from the lungs.

A PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test that amplifies trace amounts of DNA to detect if the anthrax bacteria is present.

How is anthrax exposure detected?

The most common way to detect anthrax exposure is to take samples swabbed from the nose to detect any anthrax spores present there. The CDC emphasizes, however, that nasal swabs cannot rule out exposure but are helpful because they can provide clues to help investigators assess where spores may have traveled.

What is the treatment for anthrax?

Antibiotics, including Ciprofloxacin (sometimes shortened to "Cipro") and penicillin can be effective, especially for cases of cutaneous anthrax. For pulmonary anthrax, the drugs must be administered before or very soon after infection to be effective.

Should people who were not exposed take antibiotics?

No. Only those persons determined by health officials to be at risk of exposure should take antibiotics. Taking antibiotics unnecessarily can be dangerous. The course of antibiotic treatment to prevent anthrax infection is long (60 days), and many people experience side effects.

Although most side effects are mild, severe ones may occur, such as diarrhea, abdominal symptoms, rash, and allergic reactions, and the use of antibiotics may dangerously interfere with other medications. In addition, the inappropriate use of antibiotics may cause the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of common bacteria.

Should I keep a supply of antibiotics on hand, just in case?

No, storing a supply of antibiotics "just in case" can be dangerous. Antibiotics should only be taken under the supervision of a physician who has done an evaluation to minimize the potential for side effects or interaction with other medications.

Is there a vaccine?

Only one American company, BioPort Corporation of Lansing, Mich., is licensed to produce an Anthrax vaccine right now. Robert Kramer, President and COO of BioPort told ABC's 20/20 that they have enough vaccine to support the anthrax vaccination immunization program that is currently sponsored by the Department of Defense, and at some point in the future, they will have additional vaccine available for civilian use.

BioPort plans to file papers to ship new Anthrax vaccines next year, but the drug, as planned, would not be safe for children, pregnant women or the elderly. (See "full coverage" above, left.)

Critics of the vaccine have raised many questions about its safety. More than 400 members of the military have either quit or faced court-martial rather than take the anthrax vaccine for fear of side effects reported, such as extreme fatigue, headaches, muscular problems and insomnia.

Some strains of anthrax could be resistant to the vaccine. Someone with the proper knowledge and materials could try to culture such a strain. Vaccine- and antibiotic-resistant anthrax was one of the weapons being developed in the former Soviet Union. Still, there is little or no reason to believe that this particular material ever made it out of the laboratory.

Is household bleach effective against anthrax?

According to Good Morning America's Dr. Nancy Snyderman, bleach, even bleach diluted with water, can work to disinfect a surface from anthrax contamination.

How easy is it to launch an anthrax attack?

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