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In July 2016 over 70 villagers in the far north of Russia were sent to the hospital on suspicion of having contracted the deadly anthrax bacterium. One died. What has reawakened this deadly disease? Are you at risk?

In July 2016 the Russian Army's elite bioterrorism response team was sent to the Yama Peninsula in the far north of the country above the Arctic Circle. First 2350 reindeer died, and then 72 reindeer herders also became sick, a 12-year-old boy dying from a mysterious infection that turned out to be the deadly disease anthrax. 

Russian scientists are not sure how the reindeer and people caught the infection, but the whole peninsula had been enduring searing heat of up to 95 degrees F (35 degrees C), which possibly melted the permafrost over the corpse of a reindeer or of a human who had died of anthrax long ago. The long-dormant spores entered the atmosphere and caused a new outbreak of an old disease.

Just how often are there outbreaks of anthrax?

  • Shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States, there were 22 cases of anthrax contracted by handling intentionally infected mail. Five people who inhaled the dust died.
  • In 1979, an accident at a biowarfare defense center in Sverdlosk, also in Russia, resulted in 66 deaths.
  • In 1978, failure to vaccinate cattle against the disease in Zimbabwe resulted in 6500 people's becoming infected. Of these, 100 people died.
  • In 1976, an American textile worker died after exposure to the bacterium from infected yarn imported from Pakistan. From 1955 to 1994, there were over 250 cases of the disease in the United States, usually in leather workers who were exposed to it while working with cow hides.
  • In the late 1950's, up to 100,000 people every year died of anthrax in Asia and Africa, usually after coming in contact with the body of an animal that had died of the disease. 

Survival depends on how quickly doctors recognize the disease and administer antibiotics, and whether the infection is cutaneous, oropharyngeal, intestinal, or inhalational.

  • Cutaneous anthrax is an infection of the skin. It develops one to seven days after anthrax spores enter the skin through a bug bite, a scrape, or a cut. First the skin turns black around the infection, and then it dissolves into an open ulcer.
  • Oropharyngeal anthrax is an infection of the mouth and throat. It usually occurs after eating contaminated meat. The infected area swells, dies, and becomes covered with a membrane. This is painful and makes breathing difficult. Then there will be dramatic swelling of the lymph nodes, but most people make a full recovery within a month if treated with antibiotics.
  • Intestinal anthrax is rare, and usually occurs after eating contaminated, raw meat. The disease damages the lining of the intestines. It causes severe diarrhea and death from dehydration quickly follows without aggressive treatment with antibiotics and fluid replacement in a hospital.
  • Inhalational anthrax is caused by breathing in the spores of the bacteria that cause anthrax. Most cases of inhalational anthrax are not the result of terrorism. More commonly, it occurs after handling contaminated wool, hair, or hides. One to sixty days after exposure there will first be mild fever and general feelings of distress. Later there will be high fever, severe shortness of breath, coughing up blood, and intense chest pain. Death is inevitable without treatment, and about 45 percent of people die even with aggressive treatment.
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