Numerous states across India are reporting small scale outbreaks of anthrax, a bacterial infection capable of infecting a person via several different means which, if left untreated, can prove fatal.
Anthrax is caused by a gram positive, rod shaped bacteria called Bacillus anthracis. The bacteria is commonly found in the soil, and is often transmitted to humans via livestock animals, making it far more common in rural environments. The livestock animals ingest or inhale spores of the bacteria while grazing. Once inside the animal the cells activate and begin to replicate.
- Cutaneous anthrax, in which a break in the skin — for example following an injury — allows for the spores to directly enter a person’s body. This manner of transmission is common amongst those that work directly with potentially infected livestock animals, as handling the animal, or even animal products such as wool can allow for infection. If left untreated the risk of death is estimated at around 20 percent.
- Gastrointestinal anthrax, this occurs when meat from an infected animal has not been cooked thoroughly enough. This allows for the bacteria to survive in the meat and infect a person’s intestines. This form is more severe, with untreated mortality rates ranging from 25 to 60 percent.
- Pulmonary anthrax, this is the most rare kind of transmission, but also has the highest mortality rate, killing around 75 percent of untreated patients. Pulmonary anthrax occurs when a person breathes in air in which the number of anthrax spores is very dense, allowing for direct infection of the lungs.
Though the number of cases of anthrax are typically small, the mortality risk still proves worrying. In Odisha, seven people have been treated in Bondaguda village in Koraput district. New Indian Express reports that villagers in the area dry beef for three months between April and June, this stale meat is said to be the source of the outbreak, as if the meat is infected with the anthrax bacteria, it will not have been killed off in the drying process. Gastrointestinal anthrax is thus the infection method of the seven patients.
In Andhra Pradesh five people have been shifted from the King George Hospital to a Vizag hospital after testing positive for anthrax. It is thought the patients contracted the bacteria through infected goat meat. B Balachandrudu, HoD of dermatology department of KGH noted the spores can lay dormant in the soil for decades, posing a consistent threat.
“The cutaneous anthrax spores can thrive for more than 70 years in the soil. The animals get the spores into their stomach while grazing. Tribals contract infection if they eat the infected meat or through cuts and abrasions in their body while cutting the animal flesh,”
Two have died and nine more have been admitted to hospital in Bisra. The cases occurred in Birikeri village under Bisra block of Sundargarh district. A team of doctors investigated the area and determined that the practice of either burying or throwing animal carcasses in the open is commonplace, conditions were ideal for the bacteria to thrive in the area. Antibiotics were distributed at the village.
As the spores that cause the disease can linger in an area for so long, outbreaks are all but impossible to predict. However, anthrax is entirely treatable with antibiotics or prevented through vaccinations, therefore the death count is low. Fatalities typically occur in isolated areas where a sporadic outbreak occurs and medical intervention is delayed.