Anthrax 101

Maybe it's a coincidence, maybe not. But the World Trade Center attack has left Americans with an uneasiness that makes us all so vulnerable to anything that crawls or flies about us or looks like a white powder that came in the morning mail.

The current anthrax invasion may truly be another way the Taliban, for example, is undermining America. Or it may be the work of a cruel prankster out there who preys on that fragility. Or a combination of both. After all, it was only quite recently that one of our own home-grown boys blew up a building in Oklahoma City, exposed after we were immediately told that it was the plot of some Middle Eastern Muslims on the attack.

We have become so skeptical of Washington's out and out lies to cover up its hegemonic foreign policy that we don't know what to believe. As we peek around every corner for an anthrax spore, our civil rights are being slashed, America's industrial-military complex gets handed out another multibillion-dollar boondoggle contract and tax relief, more working people get the pink slip and our infrastructures become more eroded.

It is time to address the anthrax

issue out of knowledge rather than irrational rumors.

A spore is any germ cell or reproductive element of a plant or unicellular organism, not yet organized into what we call an animal system. Certain bacteria, like anthrax, are quite infective at their spore stage, and worse, are more virile because they are resistant to many otherwise effective antibiotics and survive in the environment for years.

That's the bad news. The good news is that anthrax is primarily a disease of herbivorous mammals, although other mammals and even birds have been infected. Humans do not pass the infection from one to another but instead need a direct contact with the spore from an infected animal, as an occupational hazard that exposes the worker to animal products, like hides or fur or, sadly, from a contrived plot.

Anthrax is still endemic, of course, in many countries of the Third World, mainly sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. There have been sporadic cases reported over the years in southern Europe and Australia, although the U.S. cases have put the World Health Organization (WHO) on special alert. Outbreaks in animal herds are known from time to time just about anywhere.

There are three types of anthrax - cutaneous, acquired when the spore enters a break in the human skin, such as a cut or abrasion; the gastrointestinal (GI) version from eating contaminated food such as the meat of an infected animal; and the airborne variety, or pulmonary, from inhaling the spores while in proximity to the infected herds. The skin form accounts for just about all cases (95%) of human anthrax globally, but that type has been known to spread in the human being and become either the more toxic GI or pulmonary form. Prompt treatment is the key for cure, no matter what route the bacteria take.

The WHO reminds us that anthrax obeys the rule of Ben Franklin - an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Control of any spread in humans needs merely controlling the spread in the animal flock by the prompt disposal of infected animal carcasses and the vaccination of the susceptible herds. As expected, control varies depending on the economics of the endemic countries.

In the industrialized nations, good agricultural and industrial hygiene does the trick. In the undeveloped world, the task can be monumental, and includes even a burning of the soil that was used for the grazing of any infected group of animals. With human contamination rare, patient isolation is not required and no quarantine is necessary. Treatment is simple enough in the developed world. Ciproflaxin, doxycycline and even penicillin are agents that easily, for now, can handle any outbreak.

The politics of anthrax is another matter. U.S. authorities are hopefully working feverishly on the source(s) of the present contamination, whether in the post offices or wherever. But the whole of the problem again exposes the shameful awareness that the U.S. is still the world's only developed nation without a universal health care plan. Worse, Congressional funding last year for the country's entire public health care system hovered around $50 million, barely enough to get started.

America has the might and the wealth to be always alerted to such a problem and have the needed antibiotics and even the vaccines on hand at all times. That will take a change in priorities away from guns to butter and people before profits. Otherwise, anthrax, and whatever else can come along, are only time bombs waiting to explode.