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In addition to treating anthrax, antibiotics can prevent infection in anyone exposed to anthrax. If you have been exposed to the bacteria, you may receive a 60-day prescription of ciprofloxacin or doxycycline.

Anthrax vaccine
An anthrax vaccine for animals was developed in 1881. The Food and Drug (FDA) Administration approved a human vaccine in 1970, which has been used extensively by the military since 1997. The human vaccine consists of three shots given two weeks apart followed by three additional shots given at six, 12, and 18 months. Annual booster shots are recommended to maintain immunity.

Ideally, this vaccine would also be given to anyone exposed to or who has anthrax and repeated two weeks later to augment protection from antibiotics.

The human anthrax vaccine doesn't contain live anthrax bacteria, so it can't cause the illness. Side effects may include soreness at the injection site, a flu-like reaction and possibly more serious allergic reactions. The anthrax vaccine isn't recommended for children, pregnant women or older adults. It's an effective but not a 100 percent protective vaccine.

The vaccine isn't available to the public. Instead, the vaccine is reserved for:

  • Active-duty U.S. military personnel who are deployed to areas with high risk of exposure to anthrax

  • People who work with anthrax in a laboratory setting

  • People who handle potentially infected animal products in areas of the world where anthrax is a threat to livestock

  • People who work with imported animal hides or furs from areas with a high incidence of anthrax

In addition, scientists are working to quickly produce a new anthrax vaccine based on DNA technology. The new vaccine should require fewer doses and be available in large quantities. The anthrax vaccine for animals can't be used in humans.

Avoiding contact with infected animals
In countries where anthrax is common and vaccination levels of animal herds are low, it's wise to avoid contact with livestock and animal products and to avoid eating meat that hasn't been properly slaughtered and cooked.

Other preventive measures include carefully handling dead animals suspected of having the disease and providing good protection when processing hides, fur, wool or hair.

Irradiating the mail
Irradiation kills anthrax by shattering its DNA.

Irradiation doesn't make letters or packages radioactive or dangerous in other ways — although it can make mail brittle and yellow. It may also damage computer disks, film and credit cards sent through the mail. A small number of federal employees have experienced skin rashes and respiratory problems from working with irradiated mail.

The U.S. Postal Service is working to obtain a system for detecting anthrax at its major hubs. The organization also continues to evaluate new technologies that may make mail safer.


What can you do to protect yourself and your family from anthrax? You can arm yourself with information and answers:

  • Should you call your doctor and ask to be vaccinated against anthrax? No. The anthrax vaccine isn't available to the public at this time. Besides, your health may be better served by receiving the influenza vaccine, since the flu kills an estimated 36,000 Americans each year. That's far more than the number who died of anthrax in 2001.

  • Should you call your doctor and ask for a prescription for antibiotics? No. Stocking up on antibiotics for anthrax will only deplete the supply for people who need them for more immediate reasons. Ciprofloxacin and other antibiotics should be used only when there's a medical need as determined by a doctor. In addition, widespread use of antibiotics to prevent anthrax could increase the chances of antibiotic-resistant strains of anthrax and other bacteria developing.

  • Should you buy a gas mask? It's unclear whether over-the-counter (OTC) masks would do any good in an anthrax attack. Unlike gas masks worn by hazardous-material teams, most OTC gas masks can't filter out anthrax spores. In addition, anthrax can't be seen or smelled. If it were released, you wouldn't see a cloud of anthrax coming toward you, so you wouldn't know when to put on a gas mask. Even if you were to wear a gas mask, you wouldn't necessarily know when it's safe to remove the mask. Government authorities don't recommend that people buy gas masks.

Coping skills

Recent anthrax scares may have you feeling jittery. However, a few cases of anthrax — as scary as they are — don't represent an epidemic. The most prudent course of action is to keep a healthy perspective and to stay aware of current events.

While anthrax should be taken seriously, the threat shouldn't be exaggerated.

However, events in the United States after Sept. 11, 2001, have increased public awareness of the risk of anthrax and other bioterrorism agents.

  • Report any suspicious substance to local authorities. If you come in contact with a clearly suspicious substance, don't sniff, touch, taste or look closely at it. Don't try to clean it up. Move away from the substance. Alert others in the area about the substance. Leave the area, close any doors, and take actions to prevent others from entering the area. If possible, shut off the area's ventilation system. Those exposed to the substance should wash their hands with soap and water. Then report the substance to local law enforcement authorities. Seek additional instructions for exposed or potentially exposed persons.

  • Report any suspicious mail to local authorities. Don't open a suspicious envelope or package. Don't shake or empty the contents. Don't carry the envelope or package, show it to others, or allow others to examine it. Don't sniff, touch, taste, or look closely at it or any contents that may have spilled. Instead, put the envelope or package on a stable surface. Then alert others in the area about the suspicious envelope or package. Leave the area, close any doors and take actions to prevent others from entering the area. If possible, shut off the area's ventilation system. Those exposed to the suspicious item should wash their hands with soap and water. Then report the suspicious mail to local authorities. Seek additional instructions for exposed or potentially exposed persons.

  • Leave a contaminated area. If there's any question that a room has been contaminated by an unknown, airborne agent, turn off fans or ventilation units in the area. Then leave the area immediately. Close the door or section off the area to prevent others from entering. Summon emergency help. If possible, also shut down all air-handling systems in the building.


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