The symptoms begin with fever, cough and vomiting. Shortness of breath, abdominal and chest pain and chills are common. The first stage may last only hours or it could go for days. This is the period in which antibiotics would be effective, Coggeshall said. But because the symptoms feel like influenza, patients do not seek medical attention.
The second stage of anthrax infection can last from two to four days and include difficulty breathing, heavy sweating, skin discoloration and eventually death.
“What makes anthrax deadly is massive inflammation,” Coggeshall said. “Inflammation can be good. It's a sign the body is healing itself by fighting infection. But in the case of inhalation anthrax, the inflammation is everywhere. A whole-body infection like anthrax overwhelms the body and kills the person infected.”
That's similar to another condition studied at OMRF — sepsis. In sepsis, a blood poisoning triggers a massive immune response, but the cure is worse than the disease.
“We think sepsis is the cause of death with inhalation anthrax,” he said. “Every pathological feature you see in a person with inhalation anthrax is exactly what you see in a person with sepsis by any other organism.”
And that might be the clue necessary to find a treatment that can save lives, Coggeshall said.
“Anthrax vaccines work, but the vaccine is not given to everyone. It's important to find a way to save people after they've been exposed to anthrax, as well,” he said. “Because if we can find a way to fight anthrax, we think it will apply to other antibiotic-resistant bacterial illnesses, like MRSA.”
Greg Elwell is a public affairs specialist at Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.