Do YOU live in an area at-risk of anthrax?

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Do YOU live in an area at-risk of anthrax? Scientists warn nearly 2BILLION people reside in places that could be exposed to an outbreak

  • Up to 1.83bilion people all over the world could be exposed to Bacillus anthracis
  • The bacteria behind anthrax lurks in the soil of every inhabited continent
  • Animals eat spore-infested soil and pass the infection to humans in their meat 

Billions of people live in areas where they are at risk of being exposed to anthrax, research suggests.

The bacteria behind the killer infection lurks in the soil of every inhabited continent, with its spores getting taken up by grazing livestock.

Scientists used existing data to calculate that up to 1.83billion all over the world could be exposed to the bacteria behind the infection.

Handling or eating contaminated meat can spread the infection to humans, which may trigger inflammation of the brain and life-threatening bleeding. 

Map shows the distribution of the bacteria Bacillus anthracis, which is behind the disease anthrax. Areas with higher levels of the pathogen in their soil are more at risk of an outbreak

Map shows the distribution of the bacteria Bacillus anthracis, which is behind the disease anthrax. Areas with higher levels of the pathogen in their soil are more at risk of an outbreak

The research was carried out by The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Annapolis, Maryland.

B. anthracis’ worldwide distribution is poorly understood. Scores of countries have inadequate surveillance systems, even in endemic regions.

To uncover how prevalent the bacteria is, the researchers analysed global data of the infection in humans, livestock and other animals across 70 countries. 

They looked at records collected by scientists, national surveillance data and online statistics. This was then extrapolated to predict how many people may be at risk.

Results revealed an estimated 1.83billion people live in regions that are at risk of an anthrax outbreak. The ‘vast majority’ reside in rural areas in Africa, Europe and Asia.

HOW IS ANTHRAX USED IN BIOTERROISM? 

Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria behind anthrax, is considered one of the biggest threats in bioterroism.

The spores can be inhaled, ingested or spread via skin-to-skin contact.

They are hardy, readily available in the soil of every inhabited continent and can be produced in a laboratory.

The spores are also microscopic, which enables them to be hidden in powders, sprays, food and water without being seen, smelt or tasted.

Anthrax has been used as a weapon around the world for nearly a century.

In the week after 9/11, spores were hidden in a powder in letters.

Twenty-two people, including 12 mail handlers, got anthrax as a result and five died. The case was never fully solved. 

B. anthracis is considered a Tier one agent due to it having ‘the greatest risk of deliberate misuse with significant potential for mass casualties’.

Its spores could be released into the air from a truck, building or plane. 

This allows them to be blown around in the wind or carried on people’s clothes. 

Not many people need to inhale the spores for a widespread outbreak to take place. 

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 

However, the researchers add most people are not exposed to infected animals and will unlikely come into contact with spores in the soil.

They therefore estimate 63.8million people face a genuine risk, who tend to be livestock keepers living in poor anthrax-endemic areas.

Worldwide, 1.1billion livestock are thought to be at risk, including 320million sheep, 294.9 million pigs, 268.1million cattle, 211.2million goats and 0.6 million buffalo.

Many of these animals are not vaccinated against anthrax, the researchers wrote in the journal Nature Microbiology.

Immunisation rates vary from 90 per cent in eastern Europe and central Asia to just less than one per cent in parts of east and south Asia. 

Jabs are often given once an outbreak has taken hold rather than as a preventative measure. 

But ‘proactive vaccination in under-vaccinated, hyperendemic countries could help bring anthrax outbreaks under control’, the researchers wrote.

Between 2,000 and 20,000 cases of anthrax occur worldwide each year, particularly in rural areas, according to estimates.

Risk of death varies according to how the infection spreads. Most cases are spread via skin-to-skin, which is easier to treat, but spores can be inhaled. 

Anthrax has also been used in bioterrorism attacks, with five Democratic senators dying in the week after 9/11 when they opened letters containing the bacteria’s spores. ,

The second most common route of transmission is via the gastrointestinal tract, which has ‘intermediate to high fatality rates’. 

These cases usually come about by handling or slaughtering infected livestock or eating contaminated meat.

A person’s mortality risk is driven by the ‘dynamics at the wildlife-livestock interface’, the researchers wrote.

Animals are exposed to B. anthracis spores in the soil, which then get returned to the ground when the livestock die and decompose.  

Anthrax spores can survive in soil for decades, researchers have previously revealed. 

WHAT IS ANTHRAX?

Anthrax is the name of the disease caused by the spores of bacteria Bacillus anthracis and affects around 2,000 people per year, mostly in Africa.

The disease is more common in animals. 

Anthrax can be contracted by touching, inhaling or swallowing the spores, which can lie dormant in water and soil for years.

Once inside the body they become active and start producing toxins, which cause the disease.

Symptoms range from blisters to shortness of breath or diarrhea depending on how it enters the body.

The vast majority of cases are caused by skin contact. This is the least deadly form of the disease, with around 75 per cent of patients surviving even without treatment.

If inhaled the spores are far deadlier, with only 20 per cent of people surviving, even if they get medical help.

Source: US Centers for Disease Control 



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