Reviewed: August 2011

What Is Anthrax?

Anthrax is a disease caused by the spore-forming bacteria Bacillus anthracis. Although it can occur naturally when humans are exposed to infected animals or animal parts, anthrax spores can be used as a biological weapon. No case of anthrax related to bioterrorism has occurred in Canada.

There are three types of anthrax infection:

  • Skin (cutaneous) infection is the most common and most easily treated, is acquired when anthrax spores enter the skin through cuts and abrasions.
  • Lung (inhalational) infection is acquired when anthrax spores are breathed in.
  • Digestive (gastrointestinal) infection is acquired by eating anthrax spores in contaminated food.

A person infected with anthrax cannot pass anthrax to another person.

What Are the Symptoms of Anthrax?

The symptoms of anthrax differ depending on the type of the disease:

  • Cutaneous anthrax start as an itchy, swollen area on the skin (much like an insect bite) that blisters and then enlarges into a painless, round, black ulcer. Areas of the skin that were indirect contact with anthrax are most likely to be affected.
  • Inhalation anthrax starts like a cold or flu-like illness and can include a sore throat, mild fever and muscle aches. Within hours to days, it can progress to severe illness.
  • Gastrointestinal anthrax starts with sores in the mouth or throat, nausea, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, fever and followed by a bad stomach pain.

Symptoms of anthrax could take up to 60 days to show, although most people will not become ill unless they are exposed to a large number of spores.

How Do I Handle a Potential Exposure?

If you suspect that you or anyone has been exposed to anthrax or has received a suspicious package, immediately dial 9-1-1 (emergency services). Emergency services personnel will assess the situation and advise you on what to do next.

  • Additional precautions you can take to protect yourself:
  • Isolate the article and leave the immediate area.
  • Wash your hands and other exposed areas with soap and water. Do not use bleach or other disinfectants on your skin as it may cause skin damage.
  • Take a shower with soap and shampoo.
  • If some powder may have spilled on your clothes, wash your clothing with warm water and ordinary laundry detergent and bleach.

Can Anthrax Infection Be Treated?

Antibiotics are effective against all three types of anthrax infection.

Can I Get Treatment If I Have Been Exposed but Do Not Have Symptoms?

Yes. You can take antibiotics if you have been exposed to anthrax spores to prevent illness. The antibiotics most commonly used for preventing illness are ciprofloxacin and doxycycline.

Is There a Vaccine to Prevent Getting Anthrax?

Anthrax vaccine is not a licensed vaccine in Canada and therefore not available. The vaccine currently available and in use by the United States military has numerous side effects and requires multiple doses to maintain immunity. Research is underway to develop a better and safer vaccine.

What Is Toronto Public Health (TPH) Doing to Prepare for a Possible Threat of Anthrax Release?

While there have not been any cases of intentional anthrax release in our city or anywhere in Canada, we still need to be prepared.

TPH works with Toronto Police, Fire and Emergency Medical Services to coordinate protocols, clarify our respective roles and functions to ensure smooth inter-agency cooperation when dealing with a potential case of anthrax or any other biological agent. We are also in consultation with provincial and federal health authorities and colleagues in various jurisdictions.

Where Can I Get More Information?

For more information call 416-338-7600, TTY 416-392-0658.