“Zombie anthrax. It doesn’t sound good and it isn’t.
Climate change is bringing with it a host of potential health hazards, including the resurrection of “zombie-like” bacteria that have been lying dormant for decades.
Authorities in Sweden have confirmed an outbreak of anthrax as eight cattle and one horse were found dead from the disease on farms in the central region of Omberg, news that comes after reports from northern Siberia of a serious anthrax outbreak recently leaving one 12-year-old boy dead and infecting 90 others.
Officials with Sweden’s National Veterinary Institute are working to vaccinate livestock in the surrounding area and to trace the source of the infection.
“It is of course a loss to the owner of the animals and a concern for the surrounding area. We know that there is an increased risk that each case could spread locally,” says Karl Ståhl of the Institute.
A disease with a long historical pedigree, anthrax is caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis which produces deadly toxins that attack heart and liver cells in animals and humans. Anthrax bacteria are found in soil around the world and their spores are extremely hardy, capable of keeping the bacteria safe for decades until the right environment comes along (like a warm body) for the disease to spread.
The current outbreak in Siberia caused authorities to issue a state of emergency and has been blamed on a recent heatwave that which melted permafrost in the area that had been keeping ancient anthrax-infected reindeer carcasses frozen for over a century, a result previously forecasted by scientists measuring the impact of climate change on a warming planet.
In a 2011 study by researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, it was found that between 1900 and the 1980s, surface layer temperatures of permafrost in the Russian North rose by between two and four degrees Celsius, with a further 2.7 to 3.8 degrees increase projected by the year 2020. The study’s authors argued that the rise in temperatures would cause the re-emergence of long-dormant diseases like anthrax, which killed an estimated 1.5 million deer between the years 1897 and 1925 and led to the creation of thousands of cattle burial grounds, many of which are situated near current human settlements.
Zombie anthrax is particularly bad near cemeteries…
“As a consequence of permafrost melting, the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th centuries may come back, especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried,” the authors wrote.
The Canadian government says similar threats exist in the Canadian North, as a warming climate is expected to bring both increases in zoonotic (animal to human) diseases and the arrival of new insect varieties and their accompanying diseases.
The resurrection of dormant diseases like anthrax is expected to be coupled with the much wider spread of other currently active health concerns like cholera and tick and mosquito borne diseases. The ongoing outbreak of the Zika virus is a prime example. The United States Centers for Disease Control recently issued its first-ever travel warning inside US boundaries, advising pregnant women and their partners to avoid travel to a Florida community 15 local cases of Zika infection had recently been confirmed.