Anthrax outbreak in the Arctic Circle sparked by climate change


A 12 year old boy has died and a further 90 people are in hospital following an outbreak of ‘zombie Anthrax’ on the Yamal Peninsula, northern Siberia. Abnormally warm temperatures are the likely cause, allowing dormant spores to reawaken in either human or reindeer corpses as they thaw.


The Siberian Times reports that 20 cases have been confirmed as Anthrax. Two thirds are reported as having the skin form of the disease, which is more easily treated. The others, however, have contracted the more complicated and deadly intestinal form of the disease, from which one boy has died.


The origin of the disease has been identified as the Yamalski district, where the hospitalised nomads fell sick. Almost 2500 reindeer have died in the region from the epidemic. Reports say that the boy who died became infected after eating reindeer meat and drinking blood from the animal. His grandmother also died the day before, but as yet it is unclear whether she also contracted the disease.


Doctors are working to save the lives of the other herders with the more virulent intestinal form of Anthrax. Fortunately, the local governor’s spokesperson, Natalya Khlopunova, said that all of those in hospital “are showing good signs. Doctors are monitoring their condition around the clock.”

arctic anthrax research features
Photo credit: Press Service of Yamalo-Nenetsk Governor’s Office, Yamal Region

Caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, Anthrax can occur in one of four forms: skin, inhalation, intestinal or injection. Typically affecting sheep and cattle, the spores of the bacteria are normally spread by infected animal products and cannot be transmitted person to person. The destructive disease is also known as “Siberian plague” in Russia and hasn’t been seen in the region since 1941.


While bio-warfare troops rush to incinerate the reindeer carcasses at high temperature, the other herders in the vicinity are being evacuated to ‘life sustenance camps’ near Salekhard, the regional capital. Any potentially infected meat must be eliminated to prevent the spread of the disease. The local government have completely banned the export of any meat, skins or antlers from the region in an effort to avoid poachers spreading the disease on the black market.


An abnormal heatwave has raised temperatures on the Yamal tundra to over 27°C for 18 consecutive days in July, hitting highs of 35°C. Anthrax spores can survive in the frozen corpses of humans and animals for hundreds of years, waiting to be released. Alexei Kokorin, head of WWF Russia’s climate and energy program, stated “such anomalous heat is rare for Yamal, and that’s probably a manifestation of climate change.”

Temperatures have increased more sharply in the Arctic Circle than the global average. As a result, the permafrost that covers much of northern Russia has begun thawing, including cemeteries and animal burial grounds. The accelerating thaw has also increased river flows, leading to greater erosion of river banks where nomads often bury their dead. The reawakened Anthrax can then get into the water that people and animals drink. Officials are not yet certain whether the sick contracted the disease from drinking water or infected meat.


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