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This is an incredibly nasty illness. It's caused by bacillus anthricis, a rod shaped bacteria which spends most of it's time as round spores, which can survive dormant for over 40 years. However, once it gets into the body it is big trouble.

The three types of anthrax.

The first is cutaneous anthrax, where anthrax spores get into a cut. This is the most common type and accounts for 95% of anthrax cases. The site of the infected cut turn red and a lump grows, looking rather like and insect bite. It turn into an ulcer with a black nucrotic (dead) centre and the lymph glands also swell. However, with treatment about 80% of sufferers survive. This is common amongst people who handle animals, because animals transmit it very easily. In fact it is often called the woolhandlers disease, because anthrax spores can be transmitted from sheep wool into cuts.

Another type of anthrax is intestinal anthrax. This comes from eating infected meat. It causes lots of horrible symptoms, such as nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting of blood and loss of appetite. 25-60% of sufferers die after being treated for this particular type of anthrax.However, it is quite rare because when an animal is suffering from anthrax this is usually picked up on before the animal in question enters the food chain.

The real problem though is inhalation anthrax. This is BAD NEWS. It causes pneumonia, septicamia and haemorrage, in both the lungs and brain. 99% of sufferers die, and by the time symptoms show and it is diagnosed it is too late to treat it. This is the one that the military are so paranoid about. Every country is afraid that every other country has a way of making powdered anthrax so they can release the spores into the air. Their worries could well be justified.

The Real Risk

In 1979 a Soviet factory was manufacturing powdered anthrax. An accident meant that a tiny amount of it got into the ventilation ducts of the factory and was blown over the nearby town of Sverdlovsk. In the next two days 66 people died of an illness which was, at the time, a mystery. It was only when a particularly sharp doctor realised that all the patients were exhibiting signs of anthrax that they realised what a catastrophe they had on their hands.

The official government line at the time was that the locals had all caught anthrax from eating an infected animal. However, if this was the case the locals would have been suffering from intestinal anthrax, and their symptoms would have been much less severe, albeit still rather unpleasant. In fact they were suffering from inhalation anthrax, and the world came to terms with the uncomfortable truth that the USSR possessed the technology to infect entire populations.

The rush began for a vaccine. The first one had been developed by Pasteur in the late 19th century, but a better one was now needed. There is a more effective vaccine now, but there has been continuing controversy over its' safety. Many of the soldier vaccinated claim to be suffering terrible side-effects, and some have refused it, thus condeming themselves to a lengthy period in military prison for disobeying orders. There are fears that in order to vaccinate their troops as quickly as possible, the military have neglected to test this vaccine properly.

In 1942 the Britich government released an anthrax bomb over the Scottish island of Gruinard, thus killing..... all the sheep. The spores were still alive and ready to strike in 1986, giving us some idea of the longevity of the disease, so the island had to be decontaminated with thousands of litres of formaldehyde.

An interesting point is that anthrax cannot be passed on from person to person. Therefore, it is perfectly safe to have contact with anthrax victims, and even if an entire town was wiped out with anthrax, as long as there was no residue dust in the air it would be perfectly safe to enter the town- another point which makes it ideal for biological warfare.

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