Staunton, August 8 – The outbreak of anthrax in Russia’s Far North, the result of global warming that has melted the permafrost there, could be “just the beginning,” according to Russian scientists who report that have found fragments of smallpox DNA in some of the animal remains now being exposed to the atmosphere.
The World Health Organization declared in 1980 that smallpox had been defeated because there had not been any naturally occurring infections of this disease after 1977. Because of that, few people in the world have been inoculated since that time, and thus could, if it resurfaces, be easily infected, possibly leading to an epidemic (who.int/topics/smallpox/en/).
The current crisis, as Thomas Nilsen reports in The Independent Barents Observer, so far involves only anthrax. Spores carrying that disease have been released as the melting soil has pushed up the bodies of animals that had died and then been frozen in the ground (thebarentsobserver.com/arctic/2016/08/scientist-yamal-anthrax-outbreak-could-just-be-beginning).
Mikhail Grigoryev, deputy head of the Russian Permafrost Studies Institute, says that “the rock and soil which forms the Yamal Peninsula contains much ice. Melting may loosen the soil rather quickly so the probability is high that old cattle graves may come to the surface.” July was the warmest on record and the permafrost has melted to a much greater depth than normal.
As a result, animals which died from anthrax decades ago are coming to the surface, and the disease is spreading to the human population (tass.ru/proisshestviya/3513398). So fboy has died and another 115 have been hospitalized, although as of yesterday only 24 of those in hospital have been confirmed as suffering from anthrax.
Moscow has sent in military units to burn the infected reindeer bodies. So far 2349 of these have been identified. And fires are burning throughout the region in an attempt to stop the spread of the contagion (siberiantimes.com/other/others/news/n0699-tundra-ablaze-as-reindeer-carcasses-infected-with-deadly-anthrax-are-incinerated/).
The task is enormous because new bodies keep surfacing. “There are thousands of such cattle graves across Russia and many of them are inside the Arctic circle,” according Sergey Netesov, a virologist at Novosibirsk State University. People avoid the areas where these animals are buried for a time but then gradually forget – and are infected.
At present, he says, his colleagues are studying animal corpses from a village where an smallpox outbreak was known to have occurred in the 1890s. At that time, he says, some 40 percent of the population died of that disease to now, “only some fragments of the virus’ DNA” have been found, but these efforts suggest Russian scholars and officials are worried.
Any such outbreaks would have a devastating impact on the numerically small peoples of the region, but because of travel between the regions in which they live and the rest of Russia, travel driven in most cases by prospecting for oil, gas and other natural resources, it is likely that any outbreak, even of a disease like smallpox, could easily spread to the Russian population as a whole.
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