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The Nature of Anthrax

As Americans, hearing the word “anthrax” is unnerving. Our blood runs icy in memory of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks following in the weeks after 9/11. America was reeling from its most devastating terrorist attack in history – our national security had been stripped, and we felt for once, vulnerable. The anthrax attacks continue to be the most infamous example of bioterrorism our country has faced, and has resulted in anthrax becoming nearly synonymous with bio warfare. What many Americans fail to realize, however, is that anthrax is naturally-occurring and endemic in many regions of the world. In fact, there are sporadic cases in livestock and wild animals each year in the United States, however early detection and stringent control measures ensure that transmission to humans does not occur.

HSP recently implemented a two-day event in Depok, Indonesia (January 23-24, 2018) entitled Workshop on Anthrax: Strengthening Outbreak Detection, Reporting, and Response Using a One Health Approach to discuss just this. Two regions in Indonesia had recent outbreaks of Bacillus anthracis – the etiologic bacterial agent of anthrax. The Kulon Progo and Gorontolo areas have been managing anthrax outbreaks since 2016, which begins in livestock and can subsequently be transmitted to humans. Bacillus anthracis is found in soil, and many livestock such as cattle, sheep and goats fall ill while grazing low-cut grass. Fearful of losing valued possessions, farmers proceed with culling and selling this meat at markets, and people soon become infected through contact with and consumption of the infected animals. Environmental contamination is also extremely prevalent, as animals bleed out after death, and deposit the bacterium back into the surrounding soil, water, feed, etc. where it forms spores.

Bacillus anthracis forms nearly indestructible spores that are resistant to extreme heat, UV light, and disinfectants. These spores can easily become aerosolized – even boiling a pot of contaminated water will release active spores into the air! For people who depend on a river to provide water for drinking, bathing, and cooking, contamination can be overwhelming.  It is imperative that the global community recognizes the everyday threat that anthrax poses for many people and their livestock worldwide, and that it is not only present during times of war.

-Aimee Tandoi

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