Anthrax (old name for charcoal, charcoal-like scab on the skin of humans) is a disease in animals and humans caused by the bacterium Bacillus (B.) anthracis. Anthrax is a notifiable zoonosis and an occupational disease of veterinarians, farmers, and workers who process animal products.
Worldwide, especially frequent in warmer regions (Africa, Asia, South America) with intensive grazing livestock. Anthrax occurs only very sporadically in Western, Northern and Central Europe (due to regulated carcass disposal and officially ordered protective vaccinations). The Mediterranean region and Eastern Europe are most affected.
Herbivores are particularly susceptible to the pathogen, especially cattle and sheep, less frequently horses and goats. Carnivores, pigs and humans are less susceptible. Epidemiologically, old places for the disposal of animal carcasses are of particular importance as reservoirs of the pathogen.
Mode of transmission
Anthrax pathogens enter the soil through animal excreta, burial of carcasses and wastewater from farms (e.g. tanneries, wool mills) and can survive there for decades. The anthrax spores (permanent forms) can resurface through flooding or digging and re-infect animals. Introduction of the pathogen from other countries is possible via animal products, fertilisers and feed (bone meal, carcass meal, blood meal, skin, fur, hair, contaminated plant feed). Infection in animals usually occurs through ingestion of anthrax spores in feed or drinking water.
Infection in humans usually occurs through tiny skin lesions (cutaneous anthrax). Gastrointestinal infections occur after eating raw or insufficiently cooked meat from diseased animals. Inhalation anthrax occurs when very tiny spore-containing dust particles or droplet mists (aerosols) are inhaled.
The incubation period in ruminants averages between 3-5 days. In humans it varies and depends on the dose of exposure and the mode of transmission.
In animals, there is an acute to peracute, septicaemic course with poor blood clotting. Before death, blood may be discharged (especially dark, tar-like) from orifices. Small ruminants die particularly rapidly.
In cutaneous anthrax in humans, blisters with bloody contents develop first, followed by an ulcer and finally a dry, adherent blackish scab.
Various antibiotics are available for the treatment of infected humans, depending on the symptoms and severity of the infection.
Control is achieved by regulated carcass disposal and protective vaccination in endangered areas with a previous incidence of anthrax.