Climate change leads to anthrax outbreak in Siberia

August 3, 2016 by Kerry Gallo

A reindeer carcass, frozen for decades, thaws and unleashes disease. What’s the worst that could happen?
By Detroit Publishing Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo circa 1890s: “Archangel reindeer 3” by Detroit Publishing Co. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

In the past week, an unexpected outbreak of anthrax has been wreaking havoc for nomadic reindeer herders in a remote region in Siberia. Over two thousand of the animals have died. And tragically, the disease has spread to the nomadic community. The Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED) reports that a young boy has died and more human cases have been confirmed. The outbreak is being blamed on climate change, which experts believe caused the deadly anthrax spores to reemerge after decades frozen in the permafrost.

Luckily, the outbreak was detected quickly where it occurred by the local government of the Yamalo-Nenets autonomous region. The reindeer herders have been evacuated via helicopter, sick people have been hospitalized, and their homes disinfected. A vaccination campaign is underway to immunize the remaining reindeer and provide herd immunity to prevent further transmission to both animals and humans. Laboratory personnel and equipment have been deployed to the region to monitor the situation.

An early and quick response

Deadly outbreaks can happen unexpectedly and cause devastation, but quick work by disease detectives and health care responders can make all the difference. The Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA), which PATH is helping to advance, is an international partnership of nearly 50 countries working to strengthen the systems to identify disease threats early and respond quickly and effectively. Russia is not currently a member of the GHSA, but lessons learned from the outbreak and response in Siberia may encourage more countries to join the effort.

As the effects of climate change become more profound, disease outbreaks are likely to become more unpredictable, which makes it more important than ever to strengthen surveillance and response systems. The Yamalo-Nenets territory in Siberia hadn’t experienced an outbreak of anthrax in half a century, and yet it is believed the source was the frozen corpse of an infected reindeer that thawed in the extreme heat. The bodies of reindeer killed in the outbreak will have to be disposed of and measures taken to ensure these sites are quarantined and avoided for years to come.

In addition to improving surveillance around the world for diseases that mainly infect people, such as Zika and Ebola, the GHSA is also working to improve detection and prevention of zoonotic diseases, like anthrax, that can infect humans.

“With strengthened reporting mechanisms, local veterinarians and animal health workers can become part of a larger network for disease surveillance by alerting authorities to suspected and confirmed outbreaks of notifiable diseases,” says Dr. Linda Venczel, who leads the Global Health Security partnership at PATH. “It’s going to take this type of innovative approach to make sure that no outbreak, no matter how remote the location or isolated the community, goes unnoticed.”