Anthrax and One Health: Perception versus Reality

By A Hassim



Photo credit: authors unknown. Available on-line under GNU agreement  

Working as a researcher on anthrax has been quite the adventure. The only reason for this is because of the false perception of this disease. When people hear “anthrax,” their first thought is a scene that fits well in a Hollywood movie, of men in hazmat suits and masks screaming bioterrorism. It also (quite amusingly) makes scenarios like visa applications and lie-detector tests go hand in hand when anthrax is associated with your name. Historically; bioterrorism is not the disease’s only claim to fame. Anthrax is believed to be responsible for the 5th and 6th plagues of Egypt in the bible. It was also responsible for one of the alleged “Curse of the Pharaohs” when Lord Carnarvon died from the disease after attending the opening of King Tut’s tomb in 1922. It’s a disease that can be found around the world. Most people after hearing this concede that it’s a pretty impressive documented track record, but has very little to do with them in modern Africa. Now I am going to tell you why anthrax should matter to you now more than ever!

An introduction to anthrax

We have discussed the disease’s notoriety, but not its cause. The agent of this disease is an innocuous sounding bacterium called Bacillus anthracis. It is a bacterium that is able to survive in the soil for long periods of time by going into a dormant spore form. This is how Lord Carnarvon is believed to have become a victim of the disease within a tomb which was sealed for centuries. So if an animal dies of anthrax, its carcass is a possible source of spores for decades or even centuries at its burial site. These spores can potentially be released again during excavation (building or mining) or during erosion and flooding. Herbivorous animals (grazers and browsers) are more susceptible to the disease than humans or carnivores. Humans get anthrax through consuming contaminated meat and by picking up the bacteria in skin wounds and cuts from contaminated animal products like shearing sheep or skinning and tanning animal hides.

The Mzansi/South African context

In previous centuries, anthrax was quite devastating in South Africa and the rest of Africa in general. Outbreaks were widespread and responsible for the deaths of thousands of livestock and consumers of this meat. This graphic by Dr P. R. Viljoen in 1928 shows the distribution of anthrax across South Africa in the early 1900’s.

A vaccine was developed by Max Sterne at the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute in 1937. The compulsory use of this vaccine almost eradicated the disease amongst livestock in the country and many developed countries up to this day.

This is not to suggest that anthrax does not occur, far from it, the disease is common in wildlife across the continent. This means that the spores are still present in the environment. Outbreaks occur occasionally resulting in millions in economic losses (e.g. 2008 South Africa). Many countries in southern Africa, report human anthrax cases in mainstream newspaper articles. Diagnoses are usually based on the symptomatic coal-like sore that appears on the skin. These cases are often not reported to either the World Health Organisation (WHO) or the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) or appropriate authorities within each country. State veterinarians and human medical authorities are thus unable to follow up cases to determine how these infections occur and the scale thereof in both humans and animals. This lack of communication and information sharing is cause for concern. While it is optimistically believed that anthrax is under control, there is a definite re-emergence of the disease in our part of the world.

The Good

The good news is that the bacterium can easily be treated with antibiotics. Whether a skin infection or bloody diarrhoea; a short course of penicillin or similar antibiotics can rid a patient of the disease.

The Bad

The bad news is that if a patient waits too long before seeking treatment, the toxins produced by the bacteria will cause permanent damage or death even if antibiotics are administered.

The Ugly

The ugly truth is that many people below the poverty line cannot pass up the opportunity of meat/meal even if the animal has obviously died of disease.

Farmers are also often forced to choose between investing in vaccines or other management costs. Since anthrax is no longer considered an immediate threat…fewer and fewer farmers are vaccinating their livestock with the Sterne vaccine. This then increases the chances of anthrax outbreaks.

The Solution

Vaccinate. Report. Educate.

Vaccination protects your animals. This in turn protects anyone who consumes the meat of these animals. It also prevents more spores from getting into the environment which could be spread through flooding and through the river systems to unprotected animals.

Report suspected cases to the state so that they can help you stop the spread of the disease.

Educate your neighbours and employees.

We are one system. We have to work together to keep that system healthy.

For more anthrax info – visit our anthrax page