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Minnesota officials: Rare anthrax case likely caused by natural environmental exposure

ST. PAUL The Minnesota Department of Health said Tuesday it is investigating an apparent case of inhalational anthrax in someone thought to have acquired the infection from the natural environment. State officials said the isolated case does not ...

ST. PAUL

The Minnesota Department of Health said Tuesday it is investigating an apparent case of inhalational anthrax in someone thought to have acquired the infection from the natural environment.

State officials said the isolated case does not signal an increased health risk to the general public.

But it remains something of a medical oddity since it's been "decades" since Minnesota has seen an anthrax case, said Ruth Lynfield, the state's epidemiologist.

The individual is not a resident of Minnesota but was hospitalized in the state after traveling through western states including North Dakota, Wyoming and South Dakota. A Minnesota laboratory analysis confirmed the anthrax diagnosis.

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Because anthrax can be used as a bioterrorism agent, the FBI investigated the matter along with the Health Department, state officials said. But there was no evidence suggesting the illness can be linked to a criminal or terrorist act, and the FBI is no longer actively investigating the incident.

"All evidence points to this case of anthrax being caused by exposure to naturally occurring anthrax in the environment," Lynfield said. "It's a very, very rare disease."

Anthrax is a disease caused by a kind of bacteria. It sickens patients in different ways, depending on how they're exposed -- in some cases it causes a skin infection, while other cases cause a severe digestive illness that resembles food poisoning.

Inhalational anthrax is a third form of the disease that results from

breathing in the bacteria. In all cases, symptoms show up within seven days of exposure.

Inhalational anthrax begins with flu-like symptoms that last two to three days before seeming to go away. But the disease can come back with a vengeance and cause severe lung problems, difficulty breathing and shock.

Unless it is treated, inhalational anthrax can be very dangerous. It's fatal in up to 90 percent of cases, according to the Health Department.

"Anthrax is not spread from person to person, and it is extremely rare for humans to become sickened with anthrax, especially through inhalation," Lynfield said.

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Cases of anthrax in hooved animals occur yearly in parts of the country including the Midwest and West as far south as Texas and up to the Canadian border, according to the Health Department.

In rare cases, individuals can become sickened by anthrax if they handle infected animal carcasses or ingest contaminated soil or meat from infected animals. People also can become infected by handling contaminated wool or hides, the Health Department said. In years past, anthrax was known as "wool sorter's disease."

Because the cases are so rare, Health Department officials say they are not discouraging people from traveling to areas where anthrax can be found naturally in the environment.

In October 2001, anthrax was used as a terror weapon in the United States when contaminated mail was used to spread anthrax spores. Twenty-two people were diagnosed with anthrax, and five people died.

"That was a weaponized form of anthrax," Lynfield said. "It may well be that that caused a very rapid and severe disease."

She said that public health officials are trying to investigate what activities the anthrax patient might have engaged in that would have brought exposure to anthrax spores.

"It's known that anthrax is in the environment -- cattle and wildlife occasionally get infected," Lynfield said. "If (these animals) get infected and die, the bacteria goes into a spore form, and the spores can get into the soil and stay active in the soil for many years.

"So, then, another animal can be exposed" as soils are disrupted, sometimes due to flooding, Lynfield said. "Occasionally, people get infected if they have exposure to sick animals...or the hides of an infected animal."

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For more information, go to www.health.state.mn.us/divs/idepc/diseases/anthrax/anthrax.html .

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Related Topics: HEALTH
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