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Anthrax is a serious zoonotic disease — an infectious disease that can be transmitted to people from vertebrate animals. It is caused by a bacterium called Bacillus anthracis that forms spores. A bacterium is a very small organism made up of one cell; active cells can multiply to form many bacteria. A spore is a cell that is dormant (asleep) but may come to life with the right conditions.

Anthrax most commonly occurs in wild and domestic cattle, sheep, goats, camels, antelopes and other herbivores. It is rare to find infected animals in the United States, although the spores can live in the soil for many years.

There are three types of anthrax: skin (cutaneous), lungs (inhalation), and digestive (gastrointestinal). Anthrax is not known to spread from one person to another.

People can contract anthrax from handling infected animals, their tissues and products, or by inhaling anthrax spores from contaminated animal products. Human anthrax is uncommon and is mainly an occupational hazard among veterinarians, agricultural workers, and people who process animal hides, hair, wool and bone products. People also can become infected with gastrointestinal anthrax by eating undercooked meat from infected animals.

Anthrax spores can also be used as a bioterrorist weapon. This happened in the United States in 2001, when Bacillus anthracis spores were intentionally distributed through the postal system, causing 22 cases of anthrax, including five deaths.

Antibiotics are used to treat all three types of anthrax. Early identification and treatment are important.

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