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The Deadly Russian Outbreak
By William Heartstone, Staff Writer
FRESNO STATE -- Anthrax
[Bacillus anthracis ] an ancient
disease, was well known to the Greeks and Romans and was widespread
in Europe for thousands of years.
The ancient Greeks described how Anthrax
spreads from animals to humans. This was the only mode of transmission
until the dramatic airborne epidemic and epizootic of anthrax
in 1979 in Sverdlovsk, a Russian city in the foothills of the
The amazing explanation Russian public
health leaders gave for this episode will appall the reader, as
it did those of us who heard their story when they visited the
United States in 1988. These Russian officials fabricated a story
of a foodborne epidemic brought on by faulty inspections by public
Veterinary inspectors are well versed
in the clinical signs of anthrax and usually reject for slaughter
animals with these signs; if an infected animal should reach the
killing floor, the signs of disease are overt. The Russians have
reported episodes of foodborne anthrax that followed ingestion
of anthrax-infected meat.
The largest foodborne epidemic ever reported
occurred in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the civil war there
in the 1970s. More than 8000 human cases of cutaneous anthrax
were recorded and treated successfully.
There was no intestinal disease. All
the human cases resulted from eating animals that had died of
anthrax. The salvage of dead animals is a common practice in southern
The American pathologist David Walker
proved false the Russian explanation for the anthrax epidemic
in Sverdlovsk as soon as he examined the thoracic and mediastinal
lymph nodes of the victims. The findings were consistent
with airborne spread of the disease.
Walker had no doubt that the 64 persons
whose tissues he examined were victims of a release of anthrax
aerosol that occurred for a few hours on April 2, 1979, near a
military production facility in Sverdlovsk.
The investigation of the epidemic by
Matthew Meselson and Jeanne Guillemin, with assistance from Alexis
Shelokov and Martin Hugh-Jones followed up on what Meselson suspected
-- that the epidemic was unusual and of great relevance to the
prevention of biologic warfare.
Through his determined efforts he was
first able to visit Sverdlovsk in 1988, almost 10 years after
the accident, and then again after the opening of Russia to the
West in the 1990s.
Guillemin, a sociologist, endured the
tragedy of the loss of a mother, a father, a wife, a husband,
a son or daughter.
How did the accident happen? Did it occur
in the military facility? Was a broken pipe, an exhaust fan, or
a mis-set control lever responsible? The answers are not known.
But the fact remains that an accidental
emission of airborne anthrax spores did occur.
Meselson's persistence in seeking information
about the occurrence of any cases of anthrax in animals paid off
when he found that sheep had died of the disease, 30 km downwind
from the epicenter two days before any human cases occurred.
Highly susceptible herbivorous animals,
such as sheep and cattle, can serve as sentinels.
It was unusual that so many dogs supposedly
died of anthrax during this epidemic or were they shot by the
The failure to recover any viable anthrax
organisms in and around the area in which human or animal disease
occurred is also difficult to understand.
But others have tried to recover Bacillus
anthracis from sites where disease has occurred and have not always
met with success. Toward the end of the book, Guillemin raises
the moral issue of biologic warfare. She has demonstrated how
terrible a small epidemic (one involving fewer than 100 cases)
can be to society and how it can overwhelm medical resources.
Readers can easily imagine the ramifications of a larger episode.
Biologic warfare has no place in modern
civilization. The only legitimate way to consider it was expressed
by Albert Sabin in a toast to Russian and American scientists
during a visit by Americans in the 1950s: "A toast to biological
warfare — against all disease."
[Editor's Note: Click
this link to read the Emergency
Notice from the U.S. Postmaster! For a complete report
on this and other epidemiologic disease investigations go to a
peer reviewed site: New
England Journal of Medicine 343: 1198-11981 ]
©1958-2003 Bulldog Newspaper Foundation.
All Rights Reserved.
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