Don’t panic about Anthrax

Easy for me to say: I don’t have anthrax.

But as the Mail and Guardian dives in with this headline:

…I think it’s important to understand that anthrax – at least the bit of anthrax they’re talking about here – isn’t going to be the next Coronavirus, just like Monkeypox isn’t either. This is an unfortunate outbreak in the far North West corner of Sierra Leone.

Obviously, that’s bad news for the far North West corner of Sierra Leone, but it’s unlikely to adversely affect anyone outside that area.

This headline does highlight a couple of things regarding reporting of infectious diseases in the press though. Firstly, the tendency to sensationalise things a little. Anthrax can be a deadly pathogen, but a short course of really basic antibiotics will see it happily on its way. A vaccine for your herd of cattle will stop it before it’s even begun.

And “fray”:

a usually disorderly or protracted fight, struggle, or dispute

…does rather suggest that we are engaged in a constant fight against microbes, which yes, again, is kind of true, but then that always has been the case: that’s biology. There’s nothing exceptional about this particular outbreak. Anthrax has been around for millennia and so have we. It’s inevitable that our paths will cross every now and again. These things haven happened all the time and we never heard about them before. But we’re much more sensitive about bacteria and viruses now, because of what’s happened over the last couple of years.

Indeed, if the South African M&G (and yes, I recognise that this is an article originally from their pan-African partner) had taken just a moment to scoot around some high-quality local blogs, they’d find that we’ve had anthrax outbreaks right on our national doorstep very recently: In Zim in 2008 and in Lesotho in 2019. And we survived them.

With all the difficulties of obtaining decent data in deepest, darkest Africa – the continent upon which most of the global anthrax cases occur – it’s difficult to say how much anthrax there is around. But the generally accepted numbers are somewhere between 20,000 and 100,000 cases each year worldwide.

And yes, mostly in Africa, and yes, mostly in poorer, rural areas.

Just like the Port Loko District in the far North West corner of Sierra Leone.

All of which does rather make one wonder why the M&G is using that sort of language in a headline over a couple of hundred cows and sheep.