Anthrax, a disease of great historical interest, is once again making headlines as an agent of biological warfare. Bacillus anthracis, a rod-shaped, spore-forming bacterium, primarily infects herbivores. Humans can acquire anthrax by agricultural or industrial exposure to infected animals or animal products. More recently, the potential for intentional release of anthrax spores in the environment has caused much concern. The common clinical manifestations of anthrax are cutaneous disease, pulmonary disease from inhalation of anthrax spores, and GI disease. The course of inhalational anthrax is dramatic, from the insidious onset of nonspecific influenza-like symptoms to severe dyspnea, hypotension, and hemorrhage within days of exposure. A rapid decline, culminating in septic shock, respiratory distress, and death within 24 h is not uncommon. The high mortality seen in inhalational anthrax is in part due to delays in diagnosis. Classic findings on the chest radiograph include widening of the mediastinum as well as pleural effusions. Pneumonia is less common; key pathologic manifestations include severe hemorrhagic mediastinitis, diffuse hemorrhagic lymphadenitis, and edema. Diagnosis requires a high index of suspicion. Treatment involves supportive care in an intensive care facility and high doses of penicillin. Resistance to third-generation cephalosporins has been noted. Vaccines are currently available and have been shown to be effective against aerosolized exposure in animal studies.
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View details for PubMedID 10559102