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Anthrax (no, not the heavy metal band) is caused by the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis. Anthrax most commonly occurs in warm-blooded animals, but can also infect humans. It is most common in agricultural areas where it occurs in animals - regions include include South and Central America, Southern and Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. Anthrax in animals rarely occurs in the United States. Most reports of animal infection are received from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and South Dakota.

Anthrax infection can occur in three forms: skin infection, inhalation, and gastrointestinal. The disease's spores can live in the soil for many years and humans can become infected with anthrax by handling animal products from infected animals; by inhaling anthrax spores from contaminated animal products; or by eating undercooked meat from infected animals.

The symptoms of disease vary depending on how the disease was contracted, but usually occur within a week.

Skin infection: Most anthrax infections occur when the bacterium enters a cut or abrasion on the skin, such as when handling contaminated wool, hides, leather or hair products (especially goat hair) of infected animals. Skin infection begins as a raised itchy bump that resembles an insect bite but within 1-2 days develops into a bump, usually 1-3 cm in diameter, with a black area in the center. Lymph glands in the adjacent area may swell. About 20 percent of untreated will result in death.

Inhalation: Initial symptoms may resemble a common cold. After several days, the symptoms may progress to severe breathing problems and shock. Inhalation anthrax usually results in death in 1-2 days after onset of the acute symptoms.

Intestinal: The intestinal disease form of anthrax may follow the consumption of contaminated meat and is characterized by an acute inflammation of the intestinal tract. Initial signs of nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting, fever are followed by abdominal pain, vomiting of blood, and severe diarrhea. Intestinal anthrax results in death in 25 to 60 percent of cases (it's one mean bug!).

Doctors can prescribe effective antibiotics. Usually penicillin is preferred. To be effective, treatment should be initiated early. If left untreated, the disease can and often is fatal.

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