Anthrax is a zoonotic disease (transmitted from animals to humans or vice versa) caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis. It occurs in domestic and wild animals (mainly herbivores, such as goats, sheep, cattle, horses and pigs). Humans can catch it through contact with infected animals or contaminated animal products. The infection is usually transmitted by skin contact and very rarely through the respiratory or gastrointestinal tracts. 

What is anthrax?

  • Anthrax is a bacterial zoonosis caused by Bacillus anthracis.
  • Anthrax is essentially an occupational disease; most cases occur among wool, hair or leather professionals, veterinarians, breeders or slaughterhouse employees, etc.
  • Although the disease has become rare in industrialised countries, localised outbreaks can still occur.
  • In view of the infectious nature of inhaled anthrax spores and the high mortality rate of inhalation anthrax, there were plans to use it as a biological weapon.
  • Anthrax is closely associated with the origins of microbiology and immunology; it was the first disease where it was possible to establish definitively that it was of microbial origin (in 1876, by Robert Koch). It is also the first disease for which a live bacterial vaccine was developed (in 1881, by Louis Pasteur).


  • In humans, transmission occurs directly or indirectly from infected animals, or through occupational exposure to infected or contaminated animal products.
  • The clinical forms in humans depend on the mode of contamination: the cutaneous form after direct contact with infected animals, the digestive form after ingestion of contaminated meat and the pulmonary form through inhalation of contaminated aerosol. 


Sciensano is recognised as being the National Reference Laboratory for anthrax in humans and animals in Belgium. In addition, Sciensano is responsible for the epidemiological surveillance of anthrax in humans in Belgium. 

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