What is Anthrax and How Do You Survive Exposure?

What is Anthrax and How Do You Survive Exposure?

by Aden Tate

Those who lived through 2001 are very familiar with the term “anthrax.” For months, the United States lived under the specter of this terrifying disease. But what is anthrax? How does one protect themselves from it? Are there people out there who aim to use this as a weapon?

In this article, we will cover what exactly anthrax is, its symptoms, its history, and best methods of protecting yourself against it. 

For a broader overview of other CBRN agents, read our article on the Top 4 Common CBRN Threats You May Encounter.


  • 01

    What is anthrax?

  • 02

    What are the signs and symptoms of an anthrax infection?

  • 03

    Has anthrax been weaponized?

  • 04

    Is there a vaccine for anthrax?

  • 05

    How do I protect myself against anthrax?

  • 06

    Weapons created are weapons used

What is anthrax?

(Image source: Image courtesy of Bacillus anthracis )

Anthrax is a bacteria (Bacillus anthracis) found in animal populations, particularly among hooved animals. It’s not incredibly common, but it is a disease that humanity has fought for millennia. There is even evidence that even the ancient Egyptians suffered from anthrax infections.

Currently, anthrax is found in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, South and Central America, and south/eastern Europe with some degree of regularity.

(Image source: Image courtesy of A zebra killed by anthrax)

It normally occurs in people with jobs that bring them into close contact with hooved animals. Butchers, veterinarians, hide workers, and wool workers all have an occupational risk of contracting anthrax. That’s why another name for anthrax infection is “woolsorter's disease.”

When this rod-shaped bacterium comes into contact with air, it forms a protective shield around itself, becoming what is called a “spore.” This shield is incredibly well-built and allows anthrax to potentially survive in spore form for decades. Extremes of temperature, sunlight, and many disinfectants—nothing seems to kill it, making it a potent bacteria.

(Image source: Image courtesy of Anthrax spores)

Anthrax will happily wait in soil for years, potentially rendering an entire region uninhabitable. It’s minuscule as well—only a micron— so it can penetrate even what many would consider solid substances.

Because of all this, anthrax is likely to be the bioweapon of choice for any biowarfare attacks.

What are the signs and symptoms of an anthrax infection?

There are both minor and major forms of anthrax symptoms. Let’s look at each in turn.


By far the most common form of anthrax infection, cutaneous infections account for more than 95% of all diagnosed cases. This type of infection occurs when spores find their way into a small cut or abrasion on the skin and then germinate. It’s akin to a farmer sowing seed. Unbroken skin is like a rock; seeds can’t germinate there. But broken skin is like good soil; it provides an excellent place for something to grow.

That’s what happens with anthrax. The incubation time averages 5–7 days, but it can take as long as 12 days for symptoms to begin.

Once those spores “take root,” the patient will first experience annoying itchiness at the infection site. This will progress to a lesion, turning into a depressed black eschar within 2–6 days.

Typically, there’s no pain, but that doesn’t make this infection any less serious.

The head, neck, forearm, and hands are the most common sites for a cutaneous infection, with the neck and head being the most dangerous places to get this type of anthrax infection. As swelling progresses, it can compress the trachea, making breathing difficult, if not impossible.

With prompt treatment, the chance of dying drops close to zero. Without treatment, approximately 5–20% of people will die as the infection overcomes the lymph nodes, hits the bloodstream, and causes septicemia.


This is the most dangerous form of anthrax exposure. It can take anywhere from 1–43 days ( some cases have taken up to 60) for incubation. Initially, the patient will have a dry, persistent cough, a fever, chest pain, malaise, and occasional joint pain. They are likely to think they just have a cold. When the more serious symptoms begin, it is probably too late for them to have a chance at survival.

(Image source: Image courtesy of A widened mediastinum caused by inhalational anthrax)

Severe difficulty breathing will set in, and each breath will be incredibly painful and increasingly painful over time. As severe symptoms set in, the patient will turn blue as their lungs fill with fluid and their body cannot take in enough oxygen. Convulsions occur suddenly, with death quickly following. There have been many reports of victims dying in the midst of a conversation.

With a natural strain, upwards of 85% of inhalational anthrax cases will result in death. This ratio will be even higher—perhaps 100%—with a weaponized strain.


This is a rare form of anthrax infection that occurs after eating spore-contaminated meat. These cases typically occur in Africa, Asia, or eastern Europe. Within 1–6 days, the patient will begin to show symptoms. As the spores germinate in the stomach, the patient experiences severe abdominal pain. Nausea and vomiting will be pronounced, a fever will be present, and septicemia leading to death is likely.

Somewhere around 40% of those with a GI anthrax infection will die.


(Image source: Image courtesy of A heroin user attempts to find a vein)

This is the least common form of anthrax infection. It was discovered among heroin users in Europe who unwittingly pushed anthrax spores into their bodies. Not much is known about this form of infection, and the presentation of this disease is rather bizarre and non uniform. The incubation period appears to be 1–10 days.

What’s been seen in the past is cellulitis, an abscess, or even necrotizing fasciitis (a skin-eating infection) at the injection site. Compartment syndrome may develop, and the fatality rate is 21%.

Has anthrax been weaponized?

Absolutely. In fact, anthrax is one of the most well-studied biological agents. It’s relatively easy for researchers to get their hands on it, it’s not contagious (meaning, like a bomb, the effects will generally stay in the predicted zone), and it’s incredibly lethal.

Need further proof? Read these stories from history, and come to your own conclusions as to whether an anthrax attack is a valid threat or not.

Aum Shinrikyo

On July 1, 1993, this Japanese cult carried out what they thought was an anthrax terror attack in the eastern part of Tokyo. Cult member Seichi Endo bought a vial of anthrax from a commercial supplier in 1990 and built a microbiology lab in one of the cult’s compounds to begin making a biological weapon.

(Image source: Image courtesy of Culture collected from Tokyo after the attack showing clear evidence of B. anthracis)

After cultivating a spore-liquid compound, Aum Shinrikyo set up a sprayer atop an eight-story building and aerosolized the anthrax liquid over the population. Nearby residents complained to officials of a smelly mist emanating from the building, but thankfully, nobody got sick.


Endo had mistakenly purchased and cultivated a harmless strain that is typically used as a anthrax vaccine for hooved animals.

The 2001 Envelope Attacks

Shortly after the collapse of the World Trade Center, letters filled with anthrax began to be delivered throughout the United States. Addressed to a rather strange assortment of politicians and media figures (none of whom got sick), these envelopes leaked anthrax in various parts of the United States.

People got sick in Florida, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Washington DC. In all, there were 11 cutaneous cases, 11 inhalational cases, and five deaths.

Historical Fact:

The victims of the 2001 envelope attacks were mainly older people.


In 1979, a worker at a biological weapons facility in Russia was wrapping up his shift. The filter that separated the inner air of the facility from the outside world had clogged (again), so he took it out, wrote a note for the next shift, and left.

(Image source: Image courtesy of The Sverdlovsk region of Russia)

The next shift apparently never saw the note and didn’t replace the filter until it was too late. Anthrax-laden air had been pumped directly out of the facility for hours. Within a matter of days, people in the town downwind began to fall ill. As Soviet defector Ken Alibek noted, they had a distinct purplish swelling in the chest and neck region.

And then they began to die.

The Soviets attempted to cover the whole thing up by telling everyone, both domestically and internationally, that people were dying from eating anthrax-contaminated meat, despite people showing clear evidence of inhalational infections.

While the public will likely never know the true death toll, it appears to have been 200+ people.

Historical Fact:

Nobody under the age of 24 died during the Sverdlovsk release.

Japan – World War 2

As the Japanese attempted to conquer China, they operated two biological weapons facilities: Unit 100 and Unit 731.

While the former was strictly an anthrax laboratory, the latter experimented with a wide array of bioweapons. Historian Jeanne Guillemin points out that the Japanese not only used these agents in the field—sowing anthrax behind them in China as they retreated—but also conducted human experiments.

(Image source: Image courtesy of Members of Unit 731 conduct an experiment on a prisoner of war.)

Most of these victims were Chinese men fighting for their homes and families. When they were captured and sent to one of these two units, the Japanese were known to tie them up in an anthrax bomb testing area to see how they would react over several days after exposure.

Four men at a time would also be stuffed into a small glass chamber as spray pumps puffed anthrax directly into their faces so that the Japanese could better weaponize their bioagents.

(Image source: Image courtesy of Museum diorama of Unit 731)

They collected thousands of autopsies of inhalational anthrax this way, and after the war, these scientists were granted immunity by the Allies in return for their information.

World War 1

While the Germans were particularly known for introducing glanders in the Allies' pack mule population, they also infected animals with anthrax. It’s widely believed that the French retaliated against German animals used for transportation by infecting them with anthrax.

The Russian Missile Test

Just before 1991, a Soviet ICBM was launched from Kamchatka carrying what are known as multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRV). A MIRV is designed to split apart into numerous smaller warheads once a specific altitude/destination is reached. The ICBM itself acts like a bus, shuttling its passengers to a “bus stop” where they all disembark and go to their intended targets.

(Image source: Image courtesy of MIRVs separate from the bus and head toward their targets in this 1984 missile test.)

As American military officials watched, they noticed a number of peculiarities with this particular ICBM. Normally, such missiles are outfitted with nuclear warheads, and they spin as they fly through the air. But this missile didn’t spin. Instead, it oriented itself to the earth as it flew. More concerning was the fact that the missile showed signs of being cold on the inside.

Why would an ICBM need to be refrigerated?

Nuclear warheads can handle very high temperatures. Their interiors don’t need to be cooled. To top it all off, as the warheads split, a parachute popped out of each one, and they floated back to the earth.

Nuclear warheads do not use parachutes.

So we are left with the question: What kind of payload requires refrigeration and is best dispersed via a parachute?

The North Korean Defector

In December 2017, just a few short years ago, a North Korean defector managed to escape across the border into South Korea. As he was given medical care, bloodwork was drawn. He was found to have anthrax antibodies in his bloodstream.

(Image source: Image courtesy of A North Korean soldier (not the defector) stands guard at the Korean Demilitarized Zone.)

Iraq – 1990

In 1988, the Iraqis purchased four strains of anthrax from an American microbiology company. They used these cultures to begin the anthrax aspect of their NBC weapons program.

Historical Fact:

The Iraqis also experimented with weaponizing camelpox.

Two years later, the Iraqis had produced around 8500 L of concentrated anthrax slurry, which they promptly loaded into 50 R400 bombs and 10 Al Hussein (SCUD) warheads. Just a year later, in 1991, they admitted to an international audience that they had been engaging in biowarfare research with offensive purposes in mind.

In 1995, they also admitted to having created a functional weaponized version of anthrax.

(Image source: Image courtesy of A SCUD missile shot down during Operation Desert Storm.)

Is there a vaccine for anthrax?

There are actually a few of them, but they are typically reserved for the military. Within the United States, the vaccine for anthrax is called Anthrax Vaccine Adsorbed. It’s commonly given to soldiers before deployment and contains neither live nor dead spores. Approximately 400 soldiers were given dishonorable discharges for refusing to get it due to fear of side effects when it was mandated by then Secretary of Defense, William Cohen.

While research has proven conclusively that this vaccine protects against cutaneous anthrax, there is little evidence to suggest it protects against the inhalational form. It is apparently difficult to find study volunteers.

Preliminary research on rhesus monkeys seems to suggest that Anthrax Vaccine Adsorbed offers two years of protection against inhalational anthrax, but we aren’t 100% sure.

At least as of 1979, Russia had a live-spore vaccine called STI. After the Sverdlovsk release, Russian agents moved into the area to begin a mass vaccination campaign with STI. The only problem was that nobody wanted it. According to Soviet defector Ken Alibek, after the first vaccinees began to exhibit large ulcers at the injection site and severe flu-like symptoms for several days, people stopped showing up to get the vaccine.

Keep in mind that a vaccine is unlikely to work against a weaponized strain. When something is weaponized, not only do people tinker with increasing the ease of transmission, death toll, and environmental stability of the agent, but they attempt to make the effects harder to treat as well.

The head of Biopreparat, the Soviet bioweapons program, Ken Alibek noted in his memoir that genetic engineering and other techniques have been used to create strains of diseases that resist all modern forms of treatment. (This is also why Soviet biowarfare researcher Vladimir Pasechnik defected. He was afraid of the consequences of genetic modification.)

How do I protect myself from anthrax?

The best protection against an anthrax attack is a high-quality gas mask, suitable filter, and protective clothing. Of these, the mask and filter are the most important. An inhalational anthrax infection is more likely to kill you than a cutaneous infection is, and you need to take care of your lungs first.

For that, we recommend our CM-6M mask combined with an NBC-77 filter. The CM-6M will not only seal over your entire face but also allow a full range of vision. If you are moving through the aftermath of an anthrax release, this will keep you from being surprised by those who may want to take your gas mask for themselves.

(Image source: Image courtesy of The MIRA Safety CM-6M Gas Mask)

The NBC-77 filter is the most powerful filter we offer, providing protection against a wide swath of NBC threats. They’re capable of filtering out 99.9999+% of airborne particulates엠—exactly what you want when facing an airborne threat such as anthrax.

In addition, they’ll protect you from nerve gas, deadly bacteria, radiation, pepper spray, and a host of other things you don’t want in your system. We recommend this filter for the best degree of protection against the greatest number of NBC threats. This is an easy, one-time purchase for you and your family, as our NBC-77 filters have a 20-year shelf life. With a simple investment today, you can get your family squared away regarding biochemical warfare threats for years.

(Image source: Image courtesy of The MIRA Safety CM-6M Gas Mask)

As previously noted, cutaneous anthrax infections affect the head, neck, forearms, and hands. This is simply because these are the exposed areas of those at occupational risk of contracting anthrax.

These are also the areas that are most likely to have abrasions or cuts (e.g., shaving nicks). Even if you can’t see the cut, anthrax can find it. That’s why it is absolutely vital to also have a HAZMAT suit should your region be hit with an anthrax attack. If one of these attacks hits where you live, you can’t stay. The spores from a missile attack will render the region uninhabitable, potentially for decades. Your only option if you find yourself at ground zero is to evacuate, and to survive that, your best shot is with a HAZMAT suit.

(Image source: Image courtesy of MIRA Safety HAZ-SUIT)

We recommend our HAZ-SUIT combined with HAZ-GLOVES. Wearing these two items together will protect you from cutaneous infections, potentially saving your life.

(Image source: Image courtesy of MIRA Safety HAZ-GLOVES)

In the past, the first-line treatment for exposed patients was ciprofloxacin. Levofloxacin, moxifloxacin, and doxycycline have also been used against natural strains.

Because of this history of antibiotics use with anthrax, many people have purchased their own through suppliers such as Jase Medical.

However, Ken Alibek noted that he helped create a strain that was resistant to five common antibiotics, so if there were a release from an advanced bioweapons program, shielding yourself is likely to be your best recourse.

Weapons created are weapons used

Once created, it’s only a matter of time before weapons are used. We live in an era when a finger can operate a weapon capable of wiping out a continent. Why not do what you can to keep your family safe? If you’re asking yourself asking the same question, MIRA Safety is here to help.