Bio weapon or natural disease, anthrax is back in the news. PETER FROST investigates the nasty bacteria and the deadly reindeer. ANTHRAX, even the word causes a shiver of fear and panic and now the disease is hitting the headlines among the reindeer herds of Arctic Russia.
Anthrax is back in the news. This time among the Nenets, an aboriginal people who have been tending their huge herds of reindeer in the high Russian Arctic. The Nenets’ herds are becoming infected by anthrax.
The popular press has named the phenomena the zombie reindeer. If I didn’t know, I might suspect the story was dreamed up by a Hollywood screen-writer. But sadly it is all too true.
This summer saw a heat-wave in Siberia with record temperatures as high as 35°C. This warmth thawed out an anthrax-infected reindeer corpse that had laid buried in permafrost for over 70 years.
Seventy years ago, the disease was found naturally in reindeer herds including in the Yamalo-Nenets region, north-west Russia. Anthrax last struck the region in 1941.
When today’s reindeer herds rooted round and dug up the ancient dead reindeer they became infected with the deadly anthrax. Even after 70 years, the bacteria was still active.
Today’s Russian anthrax outbreak has killed a 12-year-old boy and infected at least a hundred people. It has claimed the lives of about 2,300 reindeer and four dogs.
Now a quarter of a million of the 730,000 local reindeer are to be culled in an attempt to reduce the impact of the anthrax.
This will cause immense hardship to large numbers of nomads on the Yamal and Gydan peninsulas.
Anthrax is a naturally occurring bacterial disease of cattle and other animals.
It has a long and dark history — a history full of deliberate and dangerous misuse.
Today it is still one of the best known agents of biological warfare — and possibly one of the most feared. It has a long history of use by official armies and terrorist groupings.
Perhaps its first reliably recorded use was in 1916 when Nordic rebels, supplied by the German General Staff, used anthrax against the Imperial Russian Army in Finland.
Japan experimented with this bio-weapon in Manchuria during the 1930s. They intentionally infected Chinese prisoners of war, thousands of whom died.
In 1942, British experiments severely contaminated a tiny island called Gruinard in the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland.
These tests were to demonstrate the killing power of anthrax during the second world war.
Disease spores were released on to the tiny island to wipe out a flock of sheep. The island, Gruinard, just off the mainland, in Gruinard Bay, half-way between Ullapool and Gairloch, was so contaminated that it was deemed out-of-bounds for almost half a century.
A film was made of the experiment with anthrax on the island. The film remained top secret until 1997.
It showed sheep being taken to an open field, secured in wooden frames, and exposed to a bomb that scattered the spores. The sheep started dying three days later.
Despite attempts to disinfect Gruinard Island, the spores left by the experiments kept the island in quarantine for 50 years. The final report on the Gruinard Island tests suggested anthrax could be used to render cities uninhabitable for generations.
In 1986, it cost half a million pounds to decontaminate the 520-acre island by soaking the ground in 280 tonnes of formaldehyde diluted in 2,000 tonnes of seawater.
Topsoil had to be taken away in sealed containers.
To prove that the clean-up was successful a flock of sheep was allowed to graze the island.
On April 24 1990, the then junior defence minister Michael Neubert made the half-mile journey from the mainland to declare Gruinard safe by removing its red warning sign.
Even today, many scientists say that we cannot be sure the island is safe. Archaeological digs in medieval hospitals have discovered viable anthrax organisms that have been deeply buried for hundreds of years.
During World War II, five million animal feed pellets impregnated with anthrax spores were prepared and stored at the government’s Chemical weapon laboratories at Porton Down.
These were for anti-livestock attacks against Germany by the Royal Air Force.
The plan was for anthrax-based biological weapons to be dropped on Germany in 1944. They were never used and finally incinerated a year later.
Anthrax was also part of the US bio weapon stockpile prior to 1972. It is likely that despite assurances the US forces still hold stockpiles.
In the late 1970s, the white-supremacist Rhodesian government used anthrax against both humans and cattle during its campaign against what it saw as black communist rebels.
There were 10,753 recorded cases of anthrax poisoning and 182 confirmed deaths.
Anthrax can be contracted by skin contact, ingestion or inhalation. Inhalation is most deadly and is fatal in about 95 per cent of cases, even with medical treatment.
The anthrax bacterium occurs naturally, in low levels, in some animals, but when it is inhaled by humans in the form of spores it is deadly.
Experts on biological weapons have suggested that 100kg of anthrax sprayed on a major city could kill more than three million people.
There is no doubt that many nations still have massive stockpiles of the disease.
When anthrax spores are inhaled, death usually takes around seven days and will be as a result of symptoms including internal bleeding, blood poisoning or even meningitis.
Initial symptoms after inhalation might include mild fever, malaise, fatigue, coughing and, occasionally, a feeling of pressure on the chest.
Anthrax was once called Wool-sorters disease as it was not uncommon for animal workers to become infected with anthrax through skin contact.
First symptoms were often an itchy boil with a black centre.
The rich history of the use and misuse of this deadly disease has many lessons for us.
All too often our arrogance in thinking we can interfere with nature and come out best has proved to be a foolish illusion.
Let’s hope scientists have learnt their lesson.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 6 January 2017.