Zambia has reported its largest anthrax outbreak for a decade, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

As of late November 2023, 684 suspected cases and four deaths have been recorded. A large-scale outbreak occurred in 2011 with 511 suspected cases.

Anthrax is caused by a spore-forming bacteria called Bacillus anthracis. It does not typically spread from person to person. When anthrax spores are ingested from contaminated animal products, inhaled, or enter the body through skin cuts, they can germinate, multiply, and produce toxins. Depending on the type of exposure, symptoms can appear within a few hours to three weeks.

Cutaneous or skin anthrax presents with an itchy bump in the exposed area that develops into a black sore. Some people then get headaches, muscle aches, fever, and vomiting. Gastrointestinal anthrax causes initial symptoms similar to food poisoning but can worsen to severe abdominal pain, vomiting of blood, and severe diarrhea.

The majority of human anthrax cases take the cutaneous form and result from handling infected carcasses or hides, hair, meat, or bones from such carcasses. The public should avoid handling and consuming meat from animals that died suddenly, meat obtained via emergency slaughter, and of uncertain origin, said WHO.

The first human cases were reported in May. In June, 26 people developed sores on their face, arms, and fingers after consuming meat from three hippopotamus carcasses. 

Vaccines are available for livestock and humans in limited supply. Meat inspections are being conducted in abattoirs and butcher shops.

“The risk for human health is high given the known population’s multiple exposures from handling the carcasses of animals that had died suddenly and eating meat from infected animals with resultant associated cutaneous and gastrointestinal anthrax,” said WHO.

FAO involvement in the region
In the summer of 2023, an expert team, including the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), undertook a monitoring and surveillance exercise, including engagement in affected Zambian communities.

With logistical support from an FAO program funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), an outbreak investigation confirmed anthrax was the cause of illness in community members, linked to consumption of infected meat.

James Syalyolyo, a chairman for Makuni Village, said cattle deaths were not reported, and the meat was eaten as they didn’t know the disease could also affect people.

“When the people from the Department of Veterinary Services came, they informed us that we were not supposed to open the animals or eat the meat because it was the same disease causing the skin disease being experienced in the area. Since then, we have stopped cutting open or eating the dead cattle, and we have burnt all the dead animals and disinfected the places where they died in the fields,” he said.

FAO has also been involved in workshops and training in 2023 after anthrax outbreaks or to improve detection methods in Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria.

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