Anthrax is a serious infectious disease. It is very rare in Australia, but it is still possible to catch it if you come into contact with infected animals or animal products.
What is anthrax?
Anthrax is a disease caused by a type of bacteria known as bacillus anthracis. These bacteria can survive for a long time as spores.
Anthrax is very rare in Australia. There have only been 3 cases of the disease occurring in humans since 2001. However, it still occurs in grazing animals in many countries. In Australia, this mainly happens in the ‘anthrax belt’, which runs from western New South Wales into part of Victoria.
Types of anthrax
There are 3 types of anthrax, each with different symptoms:
- Cutaneous anthrax - causes dark, painless sores, usually one to 7 days after exposure to the bacteria. The tissue around the sores can be swollen. Most people recover from cutaneous anthrax. This is the only type of anthrax recorded in Australia.
- Intestinal anthrax - causes stomach pain and fever between one to 7 days after exposure. This type is usually fatal in untreated patients.
- Inhalational anthrax - causes flu-like symptoms which then lead to severe difficulty breathing and shock. Between 6 and 9 people out of every 10 exposed to this type of anthrax die if not treated. Symptoms normally develop in a week after exposure but can take as long as 60 days to appear.
How is anthrax spread?
You cannot catch anthrax from another person.
Most people who develop cutaneous anthrax do so when the bacteria enter the body through broken skin or wounds. You can also ingest the bacteria by eating meat that comes from infected animals, causing intestinal anthrax, or by breathing in the bacteria, causing inhalational anthrax.
Anthrax spores are in the soil in Australia and can stay there for many years. They may infect grazing animals, but it is very unlikely that humans can catch anthrax this way.
There have also been rare cases overseas where people have sent anthrax spores through the mail.
Diagnosis of anthrax
If your doctor suspects anthrax, they will diagnose it based on what the sores look like. A laboratory can confirm the diagnosis by examining a specimen taken from your blood, one of the sores, or mucus from your lungs. The government must be informed of any confirmed cases of anthrax in Australia.
Treatments for anthrax
Anthrax is treated with antibiotics.
Cases of anthrax in livestock are reported in Australia every year, especially after heavy rain or when the temperature changes. Farmers who suspect their animals have anthrax must follow strict procedures to control its spread. The farm will be isolated, dead animals disposed of carefully, and other animals will be vaccinated.
It is important to protect yourself, especially if you have a job handling infected animals or their carcasses.
If you work with material that could be infected with anthrax, always wear gloves, overalls and rubber boots. Make sure you cover any broken skin with sealed waterproof dressings. And wash your hands and shower regularly using soap.
Put any clothes that may be contaminated in sealed double plastic bags. If anthrax is confirmed, these will need to be incinerated or sterilised at 121°C for 30 minutes.
There are government emergency response plans in place for handling a deliberate release of anthrax in Australia. If you have been exposed to a large amount of anthrax spores, antibiotics can be used to prevent you from developing the disease.
Visit healthdirect’s Symptom Checker for more information on what to do next if you think you have the symptoms of anthrax.
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Last reviewed: September 2020