Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Amerithrax 2001


Bacillus anthracis under microscope
Bacillus anthracis under microscope

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), anthrax is a spore-forming bacterium (bacillus anthracis) that when humans are exposed can develop into a serious and potentially life threatening disease. There are four different areas of the human body that anthrax can attack: the skin (cutaneous anthrax), respiratory tract (inhalation anthrax), gastrointestinal tract (digestive anthrax) and oropharyngeal (throat anthrax).

Of the four forms, the least severe and most common form is cutaneous (skin) anthrax. The most deadly form is inhalation anthrax. Both inhalation and cutaneous (skin) anthrax were most prevalent during the 2001 outbreak and are the focus of this article.

Anthrax is not always deadly. In fact, it has a high cure rate if it is caught early and treated with antibiotics, such as penicillin or Cipro. However, to catch the disease in its initial stages, one must be aware of the symptoms.

Cutaneous (skin) anthrax often begins with a red, bug-bite-like bump that is itchy but not painful. Over a period of a couple days the bump can develop into a larger ulcer, which often has a black area in the center. The black core of the wound is caused by the death of skin cells in the infected area. The wound is frequently accompanied with flu-like symptoms. The CDC states that if cutaneous anthrax is left untreated, there is a 20 percent chance that the victim may die.

Inhalation anthrax produces cold-like symptoms, including a sore throat, fever and muscle aches. The symptoms usually intensify over a few days and breathing problems will develop. Inhalation anthrax, although fairly rare, has a high death rate. Approximately 75 percent of those who contract the inhalation form of the disease will die from related complications.

There are no known instances where anthrax has been transmitted from person to person through direct contact or bodily fluids. Thus, it is not contagious. The most common way anthrax is transmitted is from contact with infected animals: via direct handling of infected animals, breathing in the spores or eating undercooked meat from an infected animal. While animal contact does not represent a major threat to the public, weaponized anthrax , such as in the Amerithrax case, is highly dangerous.


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