Anthrax- Or Drummers Beware!

Who is most likely to get anthrax? You might be thinking soldiers, people who work in high government positions, etc.

But you would be wrong. Try people who work with animal skins!

Anthrax is a bacterial infection that comes in three forms: skin infection (rarely fatal if treated), gastrointestinal (sometimes fatal, depending on how quickly treatment is started), and respiratory. Respiratory anthrax is the one that gets all the press and fear. This is the form that can be used as a bio-weapon. Historically, death rates were placed at 92% for respiratory anthrax, but the 2001 attacks in the US showed that with prompt treatment death rates can drop significantly.

The anthrax vaccine has had a less than stellar history and has been plagued by problems from its beginning. Louis Pasteur is credited with the first anthrax vaccine, but his first vaccine for the disease was not what he represented to the public and in fact, took the findings of another scientist and passed them off as his own. The vaccine developed in the last part of the twentieth century has been implicated in Gulf War Syndrome and opponents (including other scientists) have cited a lack of research and proof of efficacy. In fact, research from members of the armed forces shows that adverse reaction rates for the anthrax vaccine are as high as 85%, not the 30% the manufacturer claimed and that women have higher rates of adverse reactions than men.

Curiously, this is a vaccine that is now mandated for all members of the military on active deployment in places that are considered a bioterrorism risk. (The only exceptions are a few medical conditions such as pregnancy or a history of Bell’s Palsy or Guillain-Barre syndrome.) Why is this curious? Because more civilians have died from domestic anthrax attacks than members of the armed forces since the anthrax attacks of 2001 were actually perpetrated by an American scientist who had spent 20 years working on the anthrax vaccine. The last natural death from anthrax in the United States the case of a California weaver who had the misfortune to work with some infected wool from Pakistan. In 2008, a drum maker from the UK developed anthrax from working with infected animal skin and died. (Same article as previous reference.)

In 2009, there was a case of gastrointestinal anthrax from a young woman who participated in a drumming circle. She recovered completely after two months in the hospital, but this case actually raises some interesting questions about the transmission of anthrax. The CDC found that two of the drums used at the drumming circle tested positive for anthrax and 187 people were determined to have been exposed. Of the 187, only a single case of anthrax was reported. All participants were offered antibiotics and an anthrax vaccine. One person accepted the antibiotics and vaccine, 36 people accepted antibiotics, 26 declined both the antibiotics and vaccine, and 21 were lost to follow up. So while many were exposed and only person accepted vaccination, only one person actually got sick, which may indicate that certain conditions have to apply to develop the illness. Since several people accepted antibiotics, but no vaccine and did not get sick, is it possible that antibiotic prophylaxis could be started in the event of anthrax exposure rather than a mandatory vaccine?

Anthrax is not covered by the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, so if you are injured by it, you can’t receive compensation. There are however, 91 cases that have been filed against unqualified vaccines. How many of these may be related to anthrax we don’t know. What we do know is that the chance of catching anthrax is extremely low and little research seems to be going on for alternatives to a vaccine that has been criticized by other scientists.


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