Multiple African countries are battling outbreaks of anthrax, a deadly bacterial disease that primarily affects livestock but can spread to humans. As of December 11th, over 1,100 anthrax cases have been reported across Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe resulting in at least 20 deaths so far.
Over 1,100 Cases Across Southern Africa, Hundreds Sickened in Zambia
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Zambia has been the hardest hit with 684 cases and 4 deaths documented in recent weeks. The other countries have reported lower, but still concerning, numbers:
Table data source: [WHO, Punch Nigeria, other sources]
These totals indicate a growing regional outbreak, with new cases being reported daily across multiple areas. Zambia first notified the WHO of the situation on November 23rd when over 200 cases surfaced in Western Province. The outbreak has since spread to other provinces as well.
Health experts suspect the initial anthrax infections stemmed from people eating contaminated meat from dead livestock. Heavy rains and flooding in the region may have unearthed long-dormant anthrax spores in the soil which then infected animal herds.
“We strongly suspect that the heavy rains and flooding experienced in Western Province and other parts of Zambia between February and April 2023 led to the contamination of some grazing lands,” said Zambia’s Ministry of Health Permanent Secretary for Technical Services, Lloyd Mulenga.
Human Transmission Also Occurring
Anthrax does not typically spread directly between humans. But health authorities report that human-to-human transmission is also happening in this outbreak via skin contact with infected bodily fluids.
Certain types of skin lesions associated with cutaneous anthrax can produce fluids loaded with bacteria, creating a means for localized spread. Health workers are at particular risk if proper protective equipment is not used.
The WHO noted this secondary person-to-person anthrax transmission is making containment efforts more challenging. As case numbers swell, hospitals and clinics in impacted zones are under strain trying to isolate and treat patients while also protecting staff.
Shortages of key medical supplies like gloves and protective clothing have been reported at some facilities. Additional health workers are being shifted to outbreak areas to support the response.
Multi-Country Coordination, Vaccinations Deployed
To control spread across borders, the impacted nations established an inter-ministerial outbreak coordination committee. Working groups focused on surveillance, laboratory diagnostics, case management, infection prevention, risk communication and more.
Vaccination campaigns targeting at-risk groups are also underway using doses donated from the WHO’s emergency stockpile. However, vaccine supply remains limited globally.
“Working collectively remains crucial if we are to save lives and bring this outbreak under control in the shortest possible time,” said Dr. Richard Mihigo, WHO immunization and vaccine development program coordinator for Africa.
Even with vaccination, it may take months to stem the outbreak given the vast terrain and limited health infrastructure in rural areas. Health officials continue monitoring the situation closely across the region.
Lingering Threat – Spores Can Persist for Decades in Soil
Anthrax spores can survive dormant in the ground for over 50 years, posing an ongoing infection risk long after initial outbreaks subside. Experts warn that flare-ups may continue in the coming years if preventative measures for humans and livestock are not maintained.
“It is unfortunate that anthrax outbreaks happen almost every year in Zambia usually between December and April. However, the magnitude of this year’s outbreak has so far been unprecedented,” said Mulenga. “Our teams are still on the ground trying to contain the situation.”
Veterinary and public health systems must continue coordinating efforts to limit spore exposure in grazing lands and detect any resurgent cases early. With climate change cycles exacerbating extreme weather patterns like flooding where dormant spores may lurk, authorities need scalable outbreak response plans in place for inevitable future events.
For the impacted communities already facing hardships, this exceptionally severe anthrax epidemic only compounds the health and economic challenges of daily life. The distressing scenes of loss both for families and farmers will leave an indelible mark. But with coordinated action guided by science, anthrax can be managed, and vulnerable groups protected.
Sources: Multiple articles linked in provided URL list.
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