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Environ Int. 2015 Dec;85:133-46. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2015.09.009. Epub 2015 Sep 19.

Historical evolution of human anthrax from occupational disease to potentially global threat as bioweapon.

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Via Felice Grossi Gondi 43, 00162 Rome, Italy.
Histology and Molecular Biology Section, Army Medical Research Center, Via Santo Stefano Rotondo 4, 00184 Rome, Italy.
Sapienza University of Rome, Department of Clinical and Molecular Medicine, S. Andrea University Hospital, Via di Grottarossa 1039, 00189 Rome, Italy. Electronic address:



Anthrax is caused by Bacillus anthracis, which can naturally infect livestock, wildlife and occupationally exposed humans. However, for its resistance due to spore formation, ease of dissemination, persistence in the environment and high virulence, B. anthracis has been considered the most serious bioterrorism agent for a long time. During the last century anthrax evolved from limited natural disease to potentially global threat if used as bioweapon. Several factors may mitigate the consequences of an anthrax attack, including 1. the capability to promptly recognize and manage the illness and its public health consequences; 2. the limitation of secondary contamination risk through an appropriate decontamination; and 3. the evolution of genotyping methods (for microbes characterization at high resolution level) that can influence the course and/or focus of investigations, impacting the response of the government to an attack.


A PubMed search has been done using the key words “bioterrorism anthrax”.


Over one thousand papers have been screened and the most significant examined to present a comprehensive literature review in order to discuss the current knowledge and strategies in preparedness for a possible deliberate release of B. anthracis spores and to indicate the most current and complete documents in which to deepen.


The comprehensive analysis of the two most relevant unnatural anthrax release events, Sverdlovsk in the former Soviet Union (1979) and the contaminated letters in the USA (2001), shows that inhalational anthrax may easily and cheaply be spread resulting in serious consequences. The damage caused by an anthrax attack can be limited if public health organization, first responders, researchers and investigators will be able to promptly manage anthrax cases and use new technologies for decontamination methods and in forensic microbiology.


Anthrax history; Bioweapon; Decontamination; Disease; Microbial forensics

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