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What is an Anthrax Vaccination?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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The anthrax vaccination is designed to protect against contracting the very serious disease anthrax, which results from exposure to the bacteria, Bacillus anthracis. Most often, people will be exposed to anthrax if they handle dead animals that had the disease, or if they were victims of accidental or purposeful direct exposure to the bacteria. The latter is thought more likely in terrorist attacks, which is why many countries have mandatory anthrax vaccination programs for members of their armed services. Unless other people, such as medical workers, go to an area where the bacteria might be present, most people don’t get vaccinated since the disease is relatively rare otherwise.

There are some treatments for anthrax including several antibiotics, but the disease in all three forms, skin, gastrointestinal, or respiratory, has to be treated extremely early for the best outcome. Someone who didn’t realize he had been exposed might succumb to respiratory failure quickly with respiratory anthrax, before treatment could be initiated. It is thus thought better not to hazard that risk by vaccinating those people who especially might face risk of the illness when it is used as a bioweapon.

To this end, many people who get the anthrax vaccine are members of armed services, and they will need to receive quite a few shots before being considered immune. The first series of shots is four vaccines given in about an eighteen-month period. After that, people need to receive anthrax vaccination boosters on a planned schedule, or the immunity doesn’t remain.

Many parts of the world do not utilize a live anthrax vaccination. This means that it doesn’t contain any living elements of the original infectious agent. This isn’t true everywhere, and in some third world countries, the vaccine may be made by live attenuation, which could increase risk of getting the actual disease.

There has been fear and concern about anthrax, but also about the anthrax vaccination. The decision for the US to make the vaccine mandatory for service members set off a firestorm of criticism, and many felt the mandate was specifically because the vaccine was so dangerous that service members wouldn’t have obtained it otherwise. Significant research on the vaccine suggests less than a 1% risk of complications, which may include gastrointestinal upset, severe allergic reaction, and soreness in the joints. Similar research suggests about 90% anthrax protection or greater with the immunization.

Warnings about the anthrax vaccination do exist for certain people. Since the vaccine has small amounts of rubber it may cause an allergic reaction in those allergic to latex. It is also not safe for use in pregnant women and may harm the fetus. As mentioned, most people won’t get this vaccine unless they situationally require it. In fact, some medical groups suggest it is not recommended for the general populace under the majority of circumstances.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By burcidi — On May 23, 2011

There was a report published about the side effects that were seen with military personnel that received the vaccination in the 90s.

This article has touched on several. The report also included dizziness, vomiting, fever and heart failure. If I remember correctly, some of these were long-term side effects.

Having seen this report, I do believe that the vaccine can be pretty dangerous. It's enough for me to know that heart failure is mentioned. It should definitely not be mandatory.

By turquoise — On May 23, 2011

I think some of the controversy about the anthrax vaccine is because of the FDA's process of approving it.

I remember reading about it when the vaccine was first approved by the FDA. We were told that it was only good for anthrax exposure through the skin. It wouldn't work if anthrax was consumed by mouth or if it was inhaled.

Sometime after, the FDA approved the same exact vaccine for all three ways of exposure. But they didn't provide the public with any explanation as to how this happened.

So naturally people think that the vaccine doesn't work for all instances of exposure. And since there are side effects involved, I understand why there is unwilling for the vaccination to be used widely.

By fify — On May 20, 2011

All vaccines have some risk factors involved. It's not just true for anthrax but flu vaccine as well.

The danger from anthrax if you are exposed to it is much much greater than any risk from the vaccination. I think the government has made the right decision. Military members, people working in conflict zones and people who work in labs should get the vaccine for sure.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia...
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