A recent anthrax outbreak in the far north of Russia left a child dead, 23 people infected and the government scrambling to deploy hundreds of rescue workers and soldiers to stop any further spread.
The source, scientists say, seems likely to have been the long-buried corpses of reindeers on Yamal peninsula uncovered as Russia’s permafrost melts – and then been passed on to grazing herds. The fear now is that this is not a freak incident and that other diseases – some dating back to the Ice Age – could be unleashed as global warming thaws Russia’s icy northern expanses.
I think climate change will bring us many surprises. I don’t want to scare anyone, but we should be ready
Viktor Maleyev, Central Research Institute of Epidemiology
“Most likely the source of the epidemic were the thawing animal burial sites for animals that died of anthrax 70 years ago,” said Boris Kershengoltz, chief of research at the Russian Institute for Biological Problems of Permafrost Zone.
Russia is warming about 2.5 times more rapidly than the world’s average, and the Arctic region is warming quicker than the rest of the country.
Yamal, the peninsula straddling the northern Kara Sea and the Gulf of Ob, is sparsely populated by mostly indigenous nomadic reindeer herders.
Temperatures there in July were up to eight degrees higher than normal, reaching 34 degrees Celsius.
Anthrax is an infection spread by spores of the Beacillus anthracis bacteria which occurs naturally and can be ingested by livestock and passed to humans, usually through skin contact, causing black lesions. If left untreated it can be fatal.
Besides anthrax, there are plenty of other dangers lurking in shallow Arctic graves which might be unlocked from the ice after centuries, said Viktor Maleyev, deputy chief of Russia’s Central Research Institute of Epidemiology.
“We had smallpox graves” in the Far North at the end of the 19th century, and scientists are discovering new “giant viruses” in mammoths, Maleyev said.
“Their pathology has not been proven, we must continue to study them,” he said. “I think climate change will bring us many surprises. I don’t want to scare anyone, but we should be ready.”