Anthrax outbreak in Russia after dormant form of virus released from thawed permafrost
At first it seemed like something out of a sci-fi movie but the latest news this week confirm the event is true. It began last week when reports of over 1,000 reindeer dying in the Yamal region, the fifth largest region in Russia (comparable in size to Turkey and larger than Texas). This week, Interfax reported another 1,000+ reindeer had died bringing the total to about 1% of the area’s reindeer population. It was initially believed the reindeer died from the extraordinary heatwave that struck the area in July. However, new biological tests revealed anthrax is responsible for the deaths – and it has spread to humans.
Details are still sketchy, but reports indicate over 100 people have been hospitalized with at least two dead, possibly as many as 50. Scientists are near certain the anthrax virus was released during this year’s heatwave in the tundra region. Last week, a 12-year-old boy and his grandmother were reported dead after eating reindeer meat (a common source of food in the region). Samples of the meal were taken, and anthrax was discovered in the meat. The Siberian Times is calling it the first anthrax outbreak since 1941.
“The infection has shown its guile, returning after 75 years, and it has taken the life of a child.”
Did a similar outbreak occur in April 2015?
The saga may have begun unfolding in April 2015 with the mysterious death of over 100,000 antelopes in northern Russia in an event that wiped out a third of the antelope population. The United Nations called it “catastrophic”. Scientists puzzled why tens of thousands of rare antelopes suddenly dropped dead with no apparent signs of injury. At first, they believed the deaths were weather related – heat and rain. Later, rumors emerged that it may have been some sort of infectious disease. Then the entire herd perished. Then the story quietly faded away.
News of an anthrax outbreak leaks
Reports hinting something was amiss began leaking from Russia last week (July 30, 2016). Rumors emerged of hundreds of Russian military biological warfare teams being rushed about in the Russian arctic. Troops and specialists from Russia’s Chemical, Radioactive, and Biological Protection Corps (a CBRN team), equipped with masks and bio-protective clothing, were photographed arriving in Salekhard aboard military Il-76 aircraft along with all-terrain vehicles and other heavy military equipment.
Initially, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced they had deployed troops to Russia’s Yamal-Nenets region to “conduct laboratory tests” on the ground. Then rumors circulated that the operation was an attempt to stop the violent and rapid spread of Bacillus Anthracis (anthrax). At the time, nobody gave the reports much credence, assuming the surge of military activity in the area was nothing more than routine exercises.
Officials reveal how the anthrax outbreak began in Russia’s frozen tundra
Officials are now admitting that the outbreak began in July when unusually high temperatures caused corpses of long-dead reindeer to thaw. Yamal is above the Arctic Circle and is mostly made up of vast frozen permafrost planes. Reindeer, which are currently weakened by the extreme heat, may have eaten the unfrozen remains which contained a long-dormant strain of anthrax.
Anthrax will typically kill an animal within three days of infecting them but during those three days, the virus remains alive and can propagate in spore form. Officials now believe that during those three days, the virus was transmitted to nomad hunters either via skin contact, ingestion, or by inhalation of anthrax spores.
Russia says the outbreak is contained but some remain leery
Anthrax rears its ugly head from time to time in animal populations, but human deaths are extremely rare since the disease has been largely eradicated. To treat the current Yamal outbreak, personnel are dousing the expired animals with chlorine and later incinerating the bodies.
It was learned this week that a quarantine was declared more than a week ago, on July 25, 2016, in infected parts of the Yamal-Nenets autonomous region (home to about half a million people). Local nomad hunters have been evacuated by helicopter from the affected areas.
Rumors hint it may be more than just anthrax
Scientists have warned for several years that rising average temperatures in northern Russia could lead to melting of the area’s permafrost which contains hundreds of thousands of reindeer corpses. Anthrax (and other viruses) can survive, dormant, in spore form for decades or even centuries while retaining viability. Officials have stated that they are not 100% certain anthrax is the sole cause of the outbreak and fear there could be another, possibly new and unknown biological agent involved.
Officially, Russian authorities say they believe the outbreak may be contained given the area’s remote location. However, the outbreak has been quietly building steam for weeks and during that time, reindeer meat has been exported to Germany, Sweden, and Finland. Contributing to the belief that the outbreak still rages – yesterday Russian officials declared a state of emergency in the region.