Anthrax by Another Name

Once again Bacillus anthracis strikes fear into humankind. But this time it is not a terrorist mailing powder-filled envelopes through the USPS system but the US government that, this week, acknowledged it experienced an “oops” incident.

Anthrax culture

Having spent a number of years as a Microbiology supervisor in a busy suburban hospital laboratory, I encountered just about every bad actor in the microscopic arena. I expected all my staff as well as myself to be able to efficiently identify all human pathogens, including tularemia, bubonic plague, diphtheria, tuberculosis, anthrax – the list goes on and on.

anthrax slideOne day we received a number of specimens from a sweet, although quite ill, little old lady brought by ambulance to our emergency department. The admitting doc slapped her in immediate isolation and sent us a number of specimens, then started giving her massive doses of antibiotics. We quickly identified anthrax and notified all concerned parties, including our state department of health.

Research showed this recovering patient was fond of weaving macramé plant holders which were all the rage in the 1970’s for hanging plants in some sunny window. In fact she was taking weaving classes at a local craft shop where imported hemp was used to produce some beautiful and deadly creations. She had contracted anthrax by inhaling bacterial spores when handling infected wool skeins. Her variety of the disease was “wool-sorter’s disease.” That used to be a common malady of farm workers who handled the hides, hair, or meat of infected domestic animals.

anthrax magnifiedWe were well-prepared to identify this unusual organism because all laboratories in this country pay big money to participate in quality assurance programs. Samples are periodically sent containing microorganisms which the laboratory either correctly identifies or is put on a performance improvement plan or is put out of business. So on this one, give the government a break. All laboratory workers are always supposed to be “on guard” and treat all specimens collected and received as if they contain killers – even those coming from sweet little grandmas who like to crochet.


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