Anthrax – the bug that keeps on giving

So, in addition to all the other problems that Zimbabwe faces, which are too many, too varied and far too well-documented to even think about listing here, and following hot on the heels of the recent cholera outbreaks, anthrax has now reared its ugly head.

Anthrax can kill when infected meat is touched, or eaten or when infected spores are inhaled. A quarantine zone has been declared in the affected areas of Matebeleland North, but because of the desperate hunger in the region some families are still eating infected meat. Traders have also been seen taking potentially infected carcasses out of the restricted zones to trade in Victoria Falls, which risks the disease spreading across Zimbabwe and even over the border into neighbouring Zambia. 

An emergency assessment by the Save the Children and the Ministry of Health found 32 cases of human anthrax in Binga district. Anthrax infections have also killed 160 livestock, as well as two elephants, 70 hippo and 50 buffalo. But with symptoms lying dormant for up to 21 days or more and no communications in the region, the death toll could already be higher.

In all likelihood, this outbreak is due to the breakdown in veterinary services and the routine vaccination of livestock – a similar effect was seen with diphtheria in the independent states formed when the Soviet Union fell apart in the early 1990’s. And while the lack of vaccination is probably the main reason behind this new threat to Zim and its people, it is ably assisted by a general lack of medical resources including antibiotics, a shortage of food and no decent communication network throughout the country.

This isn’t Zimbabwe’s first anthrax outbreak. In fact, the country holds the dubious record of the largest ever human anthrax outbreak, which occurred during the civil war in 1979/80, with close on 11,000 human cases and 182 deaths. The spores of Bacillus anthracis from that episode almost 30 years ago are the little buggers responsible for this new outbreak. What I didn’t know until recently was that there is evidence, albeit nothing concrete, that the 79/80 outbreak was probably caused by deliberate release (i.e. biowarfare) as part of the bitter conflict which was taking place at that time.
Much like landmines once the war is over, the spores don’t just disappear once the epidemic has passed. Vaccination of livestock has kept the disease at bay since independence, but the spores have just been hanging around, waiting for their moment in the spotlight.
Thanks to Mr Mugabe, it’s now turned into a talent contest for bugs. Pop Die-dol. Strictly Come Dying. Whatever. I’m not sure Zimbabwe can take any more. Microbiologically, it’s pretty interesting though.

UPDATE: Nice piece by Rowan Philp in the Sunday Times on what life is actually like in Zim right now.