EXPLAINER: What you need to know about anthrax disease

FOLLOWING the confirmation of the first case of anthrax disease in the country, many Nigerians have become apprehensive.

Anthrax is a severe disease that can affect both humans and animals.

On Monday, July 17, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (FMARD) said the Office of the Chief Veterinary officer of Nigeria was notified of animals manifesting symptoms of a suspected case of an infectious disease in a farm in Suleja, Niger State.

The farm was described as a ‘multi-specie animal farm comprising cattle, sheep and goats’.

Anthrax has been associated with hides (Ponmo) and bush meats – delicacies which are popular among Nigerians.

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However, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (NCDC) has assured that the Federal Government has put specific preventive measures in place to ensure the safety of Nigerians. But the Centre also urged Nigerians to stay away from likely causes of the disease.

What is Anthrax?

The NCDC defined anthrax as a severe disease caused by the bacteria – bacillus anthracis. It can affect both humans and animals, including wild animals and livestock such as cows, pigs, camels, sheep, goats, etc. The bacteria, which exist as spores, can be found in the soil, wool, or hair of infected animals. 

According to the NCDC, anthrax spores are resistant to extreme conditions and can survive in the soil or environment for decades, making controlling or eradicating the disease very difficult. 

Also, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explained that anthrax is a serious infectious disease caused by gram-positive, rod-shaped bacteria known as Bacillus anthracis and occurs naturally in soil and commonly affects domestic and wild animals around the world. 

The Centre noted that although people can get sick with anthrax if they come in contact with infected animals or contaminated animal products, it is not contagious.

This means that a person cannot contract it from another person except in the case of cutaneous anthrax, where there is a small risk of direct infection from the lesions on another person’s body. 

Inhalation anthrax cannot be transmitted from person to person and can only be contracted by directly inhaling anthrax spores, according to The World Health Organization (WHO).

How humans get infected 

The majority of anthrax cases occur among individuals who have direct contact with infected animals or animal-related materials, such as wool, hides, or hair, in their occupational settings. Anthrax infection can be contracted through various means of exposure.

The following are likely ways by which people can get Anthrax:

Breathing in spores.

Eating food or drinking water that is contaminated with spores.

Eating raw or undercooked meat from infected animals.

Getting spores in a cut or scrape in the skin.

The NCDC categories the means of anthrax infection in humans as follows:

  • Skin infection, i.e., direct contact with infected animals through wounds or cuts
  • Gastrointestinal, i.e., through eating raw or undercooked meat of infected animals or their products, including milk.
  • Inhalation, i.e., breathing in the spores (the deadliest form of the disease).

Possible symptoms

The symptoms of anthrax vary depending on the type and route of exposure. It is also important to note that the disease is rare, and the symptoms can be mistaken for another disease or illness. However, it is crucial to seek medical attention if one experiences any concerning symptoms.

According to NCDC, anthrax, in humans, can cause fever, painless skin sores with a black centre that appears after the blisters, general body weakness, and difficulty in breathing. It can also cause severe digestive illness that resembles food poisoning.

The symptoms in animals include high fever, weakness, loss of appetite, bleeding from all body openings (nose, mouth, ears, anus etc.), swelling and difficulty in breathing and bloody diarrhoea. It can lead to sudden death in most cases. 

The blood of an animal with anthrax does not clot on slaughter. Also, at slaughter, marked bloating and quick decay are observed.

Persons at risk of contracting anthrax

The Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and Prevention have identified the group of persons at risk of contracting the disease:

  • People who handle animals, i.e., veterinarians, veterinary laboratory workers, farmers, abattoir workers, butchers, cattle rearers, livestock producers and traders, wildlife handlers, hunters, park rangers, processors, importers, and exporters of hide and skin, animal health workers etc.
  • People who consume animals (cattle, sheep, and goats) that were found dead
  • Healthcare workers, diagnostic laboratory workers and caregivers who are exposed to patients or their biological specimens.
  • Law enforcement officers (Police, Military, Immigration, Customs, Point of Entry Personnel etc.).
  • Anyone travelling to a location with a confirmed anthrax case within and outside Nigeria.


For individuals at high risk of exposure, such as veterinarians, livestock workers, and laboratory personnel, vaccination against anthrax is one of the most effective ways to prevent infection. It is, however, uncertain whether the anthrax vaccine is available in Nigeria.

The Federal Government has said it will start nationwide vaccination of livestock soon to mitigate the possible spread of the disease.

Meanwhile, to prevent the spread of the disease, NCDC says Nigerians must carefully examine the livestock they consume and take caution when buying animals such as cows, camels, sheep and goats from Nigerian states bordering Benin, Chad, Niger Republic, Ghana and Togo via waterways.

As earlier reported, Nigerians should stay away from consuming hides (Ponmo), smoked meat and other by-products of bush meats while also cautioning themselves from eating sick or dead animals. The NCDC also advised hunters to desist from picking sick or dead animals from the bush for human consumption purposes.

Livestock owners should also make sure to vaccinate their livestock as it is the most effective preventive measure against anthrax, and always be on their personal protective equipment when handling sick animals.

Good hygiene practices on the farm through regular cleaning and disinfection of animal housing, feeding equipment, and water troughs are also believed to reduce the risk.

The Centre also advised animal health professionals/handlers and healthcare workers to maintain infection prevention and control precautions, a high index of suspicion/vigilance and also notify the health authorities (both human and animal) when they see any human or animal with the symptoms.

Can Anthrax be treated?

Yes. The disease, according to WHO and CDC, can be treated with antibiotics.

“Hospitalisation is required for all human cases of anthrax. Individuals potentially exposed to anthrax spores may be provided with prophylactic treatment. Anthrax responds well to antibiotics, which need to be prescribed by a medical professional. Always follow medical advice on how to take the antibiotics. Precisely follow the instructions and do not shorten the course of treatment. Should any side effects of the treatment be noted, please consult a physician at once. Nobody should attempt to use antibiotics or any other drugs to treat or protect themselves without first getting medical advice,” WHO said.

Another possible treatment for anthrax is through the use of antitoxins as prescribed by physicians. “Antitoxins target anthrax toxins in the body. Doctors must use antitoxin together with other treatment options. Currently, there are a few types of antitoxins that can be used for treating anthrax,” CDC explained.

Usman Mustapha is a solution journalist with International Centre for Investigative Reporting. You can easily reach him via: [email protected]. He tweets @UsmanMustapha_M

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