Author: Dr Valerius de Vos
Adapted from: DE VOS, V. & TURNBULL, P.C.B. 2004. Anthrax. In: Coetzer, J.A.W. & Tustin, R.C. Infectious Diseases of Livestock, Vol. 3, 3rd Ed. Oxford University Press Southern Africa. Pp 1788-1818.
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license.
During 1923, the year during which its prevalence peaked, it was estimated that 30 000 to 60 000 animals died of anthrax. This is the biggest anthrax outbreak ever experienced in South Africa and led to concentrated and far-reaching efforts of research, amongst which the development of the Sterne spore vaccine, one of the most successful vaccines ever made.
During a massive outbreak of anthrax which occurred in Zimbabwe in the late 1970s, more than 10 000 cases in humans were reported and untold numbers of cattle succumbed. This outbreak was the result of the livestock vaccination programme which was interrupted during the war years of the late 1970s and serves as a vivid reminder (and is probably the best example) of what can happen if recognized practices of hygiene and control are interrupted.
Major epidemics have been, and are still periodically recorded in African wildlife conservation areas such as the Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, the Selous Nature Reserve in Tanzania, the Luangwa Valley in Zambia, the Etosha National Park in Namibia, the Kruger National Park and the Northern Cape Province, South Africa. Being semi/pristine areas most of the knowledge on the natural ecology of the disease was accrued within these areas.
The Gruinard Island scenario (successful detonation of an anthrax bomb amongst sheep) during the last world war showed that biological warfare is a distinct possibility. This amongst others, led to the signing of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. However, since then an epidemic of anthrax in humans occurred near Sverdlovsk in Russia in April 1979, a facility suspected of being utilized for the production of materials for use in biological warfare. This caused international concern and appeared to violate the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. This outbreak re-awakened interest and research in anthrax, especially as an agent for biological warfare in the rest of the world. Subsequent threats to use B. anthracis as an agent for biological warfare have been made as recently as 1990 during the Gulf war and afterwards as tensions between Iraq, neighbouring countries and the United Nations’ forces continued.
The potential use of anthrax for bioterrorism was vividly illustrated by the post office letter incident in the USA during the aftermath of the 09/11 tragedy. It was also calculated that the economic impact of such an act in the USA could amount to $26.2 billion per 100 000 persons exposed. This illustrates that the possibility of biological warfare/terrorism involving anthrax, will remain a nightmare for the international community in the foreseeable future.