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Thawing Permafrost Could Release Anthrax-Causing Bacteria In Siberia

Mikhail Cheremkin/Shutterstock

Thawing ice in the Earth’s polar zones is releasing all kinds of nasties. Think prehistoric viruses, nuclear fallout, greenhouse gas, and anthrax-causing spores. Experts are now warning that rapid warming in Russia's Yakutia republic could be putting residents at risk of the latter plus other ancient diseases, The Telegraph reports. 

Yakutia (aka the Republic of Sakha) lies in Siberia’s northeast and covers some of the coldest permanently inhabited places on the planet, with average winter temperatures regularly dropping below 30°C (-22°F). And yet, it is also experiencing some of the greatest warming in relation to climate change. In just 10 years, average temperatures in Yakutia’s capital Yakutsk have risen by 2.5°C. That throws up all sorts of dilemmas, not least the collapse of infrastructure specifically built to cope with the region's permafrost. But many have also raised concerns about the return of "zombie Anthrax". 


Anthrax is an infectious (and potentially deadly) condition brought on by Bacillus anthracis. Spores of the bacteria are naturally found in the Earth's soil, where they may be ingested by plant-eating animals. Like several other pathogens, B. anthracis can go into hiding (or hibernation) when conditions are not quite right, only to return again when circumstances improve. The French even have a name for it – champs maudits (the "cursed fields"), a reference to fields of dead livestock, not uncommon during the Middle Ages, decimated by so-called "zombie anthrax".

Permafrost, like that in Yakutia, provides the perfect state for hibernation. B. anthracis can lie dormant in this frigid state for more than 100 years

Siberia has already seen the return of the disease. Following an unusually warm summer in 2016, an outbreak resulted in the deaths of hundreds of reindeer and a 12-year-old boy. More had to be hospitalized. According to The Telegraph, experts concluded that high temperatures had prompted greater ice thaw, releasing anthrax from decades-old infection sites. 

Meanwhile, a 2011 study found there were at least 21 human deaths from anthrax in Yakutia between 1949 and 1996, most of whom had been infected by cattle or reindeer. 


Part of the problem here lies in anthrax outbreaks during the earlier half of the 20th century, when anthrax-riddled reindeer carcasses were left to decompose naturally. Buried in ice, the B. anthracis spores remained dormant, but as climate change causes temperatures to climb, these spores can reawaken. Hence, the concern here.

Anthrax can be found naturally occurring in many places in the world, most commonly in Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa, central and southwestern Asia, southern and eastern Europe, and the Caribbean. It can also be found (less naturally) as a biological weapon

Although it has the potential to be deadly, it can be treated with antibiotics or prevented with a vaccine.

[H/T: The Telegraph]


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