The patients have been admitted to King George Hospital in Visakhapatnam, and authorities say that they are taking steps to curb the spread of the disease in animals as well as humans. However, anthrax affects many people in the region each year and continues to be a recurring problem.
But what exactly is the disease, and how do you know if you have it? What could be the possible indicators and subsequent treatment? Here’s a simple explainer.
What is anthrax?
According to Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, Anthrax is a disease which is caused by “gram-positive, rod-shaped bacteria known as Bacillus anthracis”. The bacteria itself has existed in the soil for hundreds of years, says the World Health Organisation (WHO), and still occurs naturally in some animals and humans, particularly in Asia, southern Europe, sub-Sahelian Africa and parts of Australia.
Bacillus anthracis survives by forming spores, which can be inhaled or ingested by cattle like goats, cows, sheep, horses, mules and the like through contaminated soil, plants or water. These spores may get ‘activated’ when they enter the body, causing them to multiply, produce toxins and cause illness.
Types of anthrax
The cases of anthrax found in Andhra Pradesh are cutaneous anthrax, or skin anthrax.
This is the most common form of the disease and is contacted by the person when he/she has a break in their skin and comes in contact with anthrax spores. This is common for people who work with anthrax-infected animals or even when they handle contaminated wool, hide or hair of the animal.
Cutaneous anthrax is also the least dangerous, with 20% chances of it being fatal if untreated.
The second type is gastrointestinal anthrax, that is contacted from eating undercooked meat of an infected animal. It affects the intestines and is fatal in 25% to 60% of the cases if not treated.
The third kind is also the most severe kind – pulmonary anthrax, is the rarest of the three, but also the most dangerous with a much higher chance of the disease proving fatal. Pulmonary anthrax is contacted when a person breathes in the air in which a high number of anthrax spores are present. In about 75% cases, this condition proves fatal.
Incidentally, ‘anthrax’ is the Greek word for coal, which is also indicative of the outbreaks the disease causes in its most common form.
Cutaneous anthrax is symptomized by sores on the skin. The symptoms usually appear within seven days of the spores’ entry into the body. According to Communicable Disease Control and Prevention, San Francisco, first a painless blister appears on the skin at the point of entry of the spore (the spores enter the body through abrasions or cuts in the skin). This blister then becomes an open sore and then a black scab. The sore is usually painless.
Gastrointestinal anthrax develops symptoms begin to show within 2-5 days and may resemble those of food poisoning initially. Severe abdominal pain, nausea, loss of appetite, bloody diarrhoea and fever are some of the indicators of gastrointestinal anthrax.
Pulmonary anthrax is clearly the trickiest out of the three, with symptoms that can show at any time from 2 to 45 days after the entry of the spores into the body. The affected person may develop symptoms akin to those of a common cold, cough, fever, muscle ache and shortness of breath. However, there is usually not a runny nose. Enlargement of lymph glands, vomiting and diarrhoea can also develop as the disease progresses.
Seeing that many of the initial symptoms are painless or can easily be mistaken for common illnesses, it may be a good idea to get them checked at a physician’s right away. Anthrax is also not communicable among humans, meaning you cannot catch it from another person.
Anthrax generally responds well to antibiotics, which work best when the disease is detected early. However, it is not recommended to take these antibiotics based on a suspicion that you may have anthrax. The medicines must be taken with prescription only.
According to WHO and National Health Portal of India, there is a vaccine for anthrax but widespread use like mass immunization is not recommended. The vaccine is given to adults, who may be more at risk in contacting the disease through their work like tannery workers, military personnel or those who work with animal products.
However, the vaccine should not be administered to anyone who demonstrates an allergic reaction to a previous dosage of the vaccine, pregnant women and people who have a moderate or severe illness. People who have allergies, including latex allergy, should also inform the doctor before taking the vaccine.
For animals, vaccination is recommended for all animals in the suspected herd, those that will be exposed to endemic areas as well as those in the neighbouring premises. The vaccination immunizes the animals for a year after which the dosage should be repeated.
The Andhra Pradesh authorities have told the media that they plan to take steps to curb the spread of the disease. The soil around Kodipunjuvalasa will be tested, and all Primary Health Care Centres in the Agency areas would be converted to 24-hour hospitals. Vaccination drives also appear to be on the agenda, along with Animal Husbandry Department planning to ensure the disease is contained among animals.