Western Siberia is in the midst of an almost unprecedented anthrax outbreak, the first one to hit the region in over half a century. As of Thursday, over a dozen people have required hospitalization due to suspected anthrax infections. The anthrax outbreak is centered in the Yamalo-Nenets region of Siberia, and authorities are getting closer to pinning down the source of the spreading infection.
According to scientists employed by the Russian Ministry of Agriculture, investigators into the widespread outbreak, it is now believed that the potentially deadly anthrax infections likely originated in a thawing reindeer carcass. The reindeer died in the area roughly 75 years ago, but due to unusually warm temperatures in the region, it has only now begun to thaw, releasing the Bacillus anthracis bacteria into the local environment.
The rash of current suspected anthrax-related hospitalizations in Siberia came immediately following the deaths of over 1,000 reindeer in the region — the recent reindeer deaths occurred over the last month. After the reindeer die-off, officials in the area suspected that the animals had died due to the almost-unheard-of heat wave currently plaguing their native region of Siberia.
Over the last month, in the midst of the reindeer deaths, temperatures in Siberia reached 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures that high are extremely uncommon in the area, and experts had believed that the heat wave may have been responsible for weakening and sickening the reindeer.
Local Governor Dmitry Kobylkin’s office has now announced that the deaths of the 1,200 reindeer were not directly related to the heat wave in Siberia after all, but rather that the dead animals had tested positive for anthrax.
While it hasn’t been officially confirmed that the 13 hospitalized patients are indeed suffering from anthrax infections, they are all being treated with antibiotics as though they are infected with the bacteria, reports CNN.
According to local scientists, they believe the suspected anthrax outbreak in Siberia originated from a single infected reindeer corpse. Experts believe that the over 1,000 reindeer that died in the last month were most likely weakened by the unprecedented heat in Siberia, and that they ate the newly-thawed remnants of a 75-year-old reindeer corpse.
Scientists believe that from there, the anthrax outbreak in Siberia spread to nomadic people in the region when they came into contact with the infected reindeer.
When the diagnosis of anthrax is confirmed by Moscow labs, the current outbreak will be the first in Siberia since WWII.
A U.S. National Institutes of Health doctor has declined to speculate regarding what type of anthrax may have infected the reindeer herd and/or dozen or so residents in Siberia. Dr. Peter Eichacker said that without samples, he can’t say for sure what kind of anthrax infection is responsible for the current Siberia outbreak, but he did wager a guess based upon the reported symptoms.
“It’s unclear, but it’s most likely the gastrointestinal tract form.”
According to the doctor, most anthrax infections reported in the area are either gastrointestinal or cutaneous. Cutaneous anthrax infections are the result of anthrax spores entering the body through breaks in the skin. The mortality rate for cutaneous anthrax is between five and ten percent.
Gastrointestinal anthrax infections are much deadlier, and such infections are the product of actually consuming meat contaminated with the anthrax bacteria.
In the wake of the current Siberia (suspected) anthrax outbreak, authorities have forced the mass involuntary evacuation of people in the area to halt the spread of the deadly bacteria. While human to human transition of anthrax isn’t a risk, the government is reportedly moving residents from the area in order to provide them with preventative anthrax vaccinations in an attempt to get the outbreak in check.
According to reports, the government-enforced quarantine could continue until as late as September, and the government has reportedly supplied animals and people impacted by the Siberia anthrax outbreak with “assistance and other measures.”
The current high temperatures in the area have cause extensive and, in some cases, unprecedented, thawing. Scientists, both local and around the world, have expressed concern that the high temperatures and related thawing could result in a never-before-seen level of thawing microbes. Some are even calling the current anthrax situation a “zombie outbreak.” It’s possible that the Siberia anthrax outbreak may just be the tip of the iceberg if global temperatures continue to rise.
As of Sunday, July 31, it is being reported that the reindeer death toll has risen to 1,500 and at least 40 people have been hospitalized due to the Siberia anthrax outbreak.
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