In Siberia, where warmer temps of late have led to the melting of the permafrost, vegetation and the carcasses of animals that have been buried for decades are rising to the surface and unleashing zombie bacteria, dormant since they were buried in the ice, on populations unfit to protect themselves, the Washington Post reports.
Thirteen nomads on the Yamal Peninsula were hospitalized, including four children, according to a report in the Siberian Times. The bacteria took an even worse toll on wildlife, claiming the lives of about 1,500 reindeer in only a few days.
The government plans to vaccinate healthy animals that remain in the herds of reindeer and bury the dead ones properly, which would include disinfection in some manner. Anthrax spores can lie dormant in cold soil or permafrost for up to 75 years, and possibly longer. It comes back to life with increasing warmth.
How anthrax infects humans
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says anthrax is a serious infectious disease caused by gram-positive, rod-shaped bacteria known as Bacillus anthracis.
The bacteria can be found naturally in soil and commonly affects domestic and wild animals around the world. People can get sick with anthrax if they come into contact with infected animals or contaminated animal products, the CDC advises. “Contact with anthrax can cause severe illness in both humans and animals.”
You can’t “catch” anthrax just from another infected person, like the flu; it has to enter your body through eating, breathing, a scrape in your skin, injection with an infected needle, and so on. Animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, antelope, and—in the latest Siberian outbreak—reindeer get anthrax by breathing in or eating anthrax spores in contaminated soil, plants, or water. A routine vaccination against the disease exists, but most animals don’t receive it unless anthrax has been known to infect animals or people in the areas where those animals live.
Then, if people get the spores into their body, they become infected with anthrax. The spores can be “activated,” the CDC notes, and multiply, spread throughout the body, produce poisonous chemicals, and cause flu-like symptoms. Typically, people either eat food that’s infected or the spores enter their body through cuts in the skin.
The bacteria are killed by cooking, but eating raw or undercooked meat from infected animals may result in an anthrax infection. The US routinely vaccinates livestock against anthrax and inspects food animals prior to slaughter, so anthrax infections are rare in the US. An anthrax infection can be treated with antibiotics, but can be much more serious if left untreated.