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FOR RELEASE: October 12, 2001
CONTACT: Dick Gunn
405/271-5601

State Health Officials Urge Calm and Common Sense Regarding Anthrax

Following the recent death from anthrax of a Florida man and two coworkers who tested positive for anthrax exposure, and an apparently unrelated case in a worker in New York City, many Oklahomans are concerned about the precautions they may need to take against anthrax or other biological agents that might be used in a bioterrorism event.

“Although we should be alert to the possibility of anthrax being used in a bioterrorist event, the risk of any one person contracting the disease through such a mechanism is extremely low,” said State Epidemiologist Dr. Michael Crutcher.

In the wake of these unusual anthrax exposures, Crutcher said many Oklahoma physicians are reporting that they are receiving requests from their patients for prescriptions for antibiotics and for nasal cultures for anthrax.

“Based on what we know now, there is no need for Oklahomans to take these extraordinary steps,” he said.

Crutcher said the best course of action for citizens to follow is to be alert to their health and that of their family and to report any unusual symptoms or diseases to their health care provider. In turn, health care providers should be alert for persons with symptoms consistent with anthrax or other bioterrorism agents and for any unusual disease manifestations or clusters of disease.

“We do not recommend the routine use of antibiotics in the absence of any evidence of a bioterrorism event in our state,” Crutcher emphasized.  “This is not in the best interest of the public and could pose additional health risks. Medicines should only be prescribed when there has been an identified need to protect persons from developing disease if and when there is evidence that a bioterrorism event has occurred.”

Crutcher added, “We must bear in mind that indiscriminate use of antibiotics may further contribute to widespread antibiotic resistance.”  In addition, he said medicines lose their effectiveness over time and should not be stockpiled for future use.

Crutcher said nasal cultures are also not recommended, even in the evaluation of patients with symptoms consistent with anthrax, since a negative result does not exclude the diagnosis of anthrax. “Physicians should use other recommended tests,” he said.

Since the September 11 terrorist attack, the Oklahoma State Department of Health has notified hospital laboratories and health care providers to be on alert for clinical illnesses that could be associated with bioterrorism agents, including anthrax, smallpox, plague, tularemia and brucellosis.  State health officials have provided laboratories with instructions on culturing specific organisms and will soon provide practitioners with a clinical guide to illnesses suggestive of bioterrorism agents. Such illnesses should be reported immediately to the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

There is a vaccine for anthrax, however, it is currently only available to military personnel sent to areas of the world where there is increased risk of exposure to bioterrorism agents. There is no plan for routine vaccination of the general public.

Crutcher stressed that the reported anthrax incidents appear to be isolated events.  “Oklahomans need not go to a doctor or hospital unless they are sick. They should not buy or horde medicines or antibiotics and they should not buy gas masks. Persons would have to wear the mask at all times to protect against an unobserved event,” he cautioned.

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Fact Sheet                                                                  

Anthrax and Bioterrorism

Oklahoma State Department of Health
Communicable Disease Division

What is anthrax?
Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis.  Anthrax most commonly occurs in warm-blooded animals, but can also infect humans when they are exposed to infected animals or tissue from infected animals. Symptoms of disease vary depending on how the disease was contracted, but symptoms usually occur within seven days of exposure. Anthrax infection can occur in three forms: cutaneous (skin), inhalation, and gastrointestinal. Person-to-person spread of anthrax most likely does not occur.  

Where is anthrax usually found?
Although anthrax can be found anywhere in the world, it is most common in agricultural regions where it occurs in wild and domestic animals, including, cattle, sheep, goats, camels, antelopes and other herbivores.  Areas of the world currently listed as high risk are South and Central America, Southern and Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East.

Can anthrax be used as a biological weapon?
Several nations are believed to have offensive biological weapons programs.  Iraq has acknowledged producing and weaponizing anthrax.  Experts believe that the manufacture of a lethal anthrax aerosol is beyond the capability of individuals or groups without access to advanced biotechnology.

Is there a treatment for anthrax?
Doctors can prescribe effective antibiotics.  Early antibiotic use is essential for the treatment of inhalation anthrax because of the rapid course of the disease.  If left untreated, the disease can be fatal.  If there were an attack using anthrax against the civilian population, antibiotics would be used to prevent deaths from anthrax.  We do not recommend that doctors prescribe antibiotics for anthrax at this time.  Currently, the United States has enough antibiotics to prevent the disease in 2 million persons exposed to anthrax. These antibiotics would be rapidly distributed to those who may have been exposed.  There is no need to treat the contacts of a person with anthrax.

Is anthrax vaccine available?
The anthrax vaccine is not recommended for the general public or health care providers.   It is only used for military personnel deployed to areas of the world with a high risk for exposure.  

There is no need to immunize or treat patient contacts (e.g., household contacts, friends, coworkers) of a patient, unless they were also exposed to anthrax aerosol at the time of an attack.  

Anthrax vaccines intended for animals is not safe for use in humans.

Should the public buy gas masks?
We do not recommend individuals buy gas masks or hoard medicines in preparation for a possible bioterrorist attack.  In the event of an emergency, local and state health departments will inform the public of actions they need to take.

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