Thousands of dead deer, hundreds of evacuees and a vast territory blazing with fires to destroy animal carcasses — anthrax has wreaked havoc on the Siberian peninsula of Yamal. Can Russia withstand epidemics that the rest of the world seems to have forgotten?
"With the current outbreak not everything is simple and clear," says Vladimir Nikiforov, the chief physician for infectious diseases at the Federal Biomedical Agency, shortly after returning from the affected region.
"Presumably the main culprit is the hot summer. Nobody expected 35 degrees where it's usually 15. The (frozen ground) thawed and it appears that old anthrax spores resurfaced as a result. They were stored in the soil since 1941, when the Yamal Peninsula had its last large-scale outbreak of the infection. Back then the bodies were not buried, and certainly not burned," he said.
Russia's government must face several pertinent questions that the outbreak raises.
First, the scale. Dmitry Kobylkin, the governor of the Nenets region of Yamal, who declared the state of emergency, says that Russia has never seen a situation of such magnitude and complexity as that of the current outbreak. "In the forms that we governors use for training, such biological threats are not even mentioned," says Kobylkin, adding that he hopes for "certain changes in the legislation."
Russia needs an urgent revision of laws related to biosecurity — a promise officials have made for many months now. There is every reason to believe that this outbreak is just a precursor to other large-scale epidemics. "The source of the infection can be any old cattle burial site, the peace of which has been disturbed. The occurrence of the outbreaks is a matter of chance," says Mihail Lebedev, a consulting physician at the Central Research Institute of Epidemiology.
Several regions such as the Saratov region, Tumen, Volgograd, and Yakutia, which are home to scores of such burial sites, have since rushed to purchase anthrax vaccines.
Another problem is the lack of vaccinations. An overwhelming number of farms have not vaccinated animals or humans in many years. On the Yamal Peninsula, deer were last vaccinated against anthrax in 2007. Officials counter these accusations by saying that they, apparently, have received information that "spores of anthrax cannot survive in the cold soil of Yamal." Where does this information come from? After all, science has already established that anthrax can dwell in soil for centuries.
The fight against anthrax was overshadowed by other, equally alarming, diseases this summer. The bubonic plague appeared in the southern Siberian region of Altai. The disease was found in a 10-year-old boy.
People wear face mask in fear of flu in metro of Moscow, Russia, on January 2016 — Photo: Evegeny Sinitsyn/Xinhua/ZUMA
Local media reported that the foot and mouth disease, an incurable and highly contagious ailment, was found in cattle in the Russian republic of Kalmykia. But the federal service for supervision of consumer rights protection and human welfare refutes news of the outbreak.
A wave of African swine fever in Russia also raises questions regarding the quality of animal control in the country. Pigs rapidly transmit this disease, which causes paralysis and death. Treating the affliction is prohibited and there's no vaccine. The only method of controlling the fever is to slaughter all the affected animals. The Russian region of Kursk, alone, exterminated 17,000 pigs. It's a decision which comes with a heavy financial toll. For instance, Malta lost $30 million due to an outbreak of African swine flu.
With farmers facing these grim prospects, some are trying to bury the animals themselves. Others, more disturbingly, are trying to sell the meat through shadow channels. Everyone remembers the headlines from five years ago: "The notorious dumplings made from anthrax-contaminated horse meat available at a grocery store near you." At the time, the director of a horse farm in Omsk slaughtered all sickened horses overnight, then miraculously obtained veterinary approval for the meat and passed his product into a meat-packing plant. His actions were only discovered after several of the plant workers caught anthrax, one of whom did not survive. The dumplings were only then removed from retailers across the country.
Russia's current outbreak of infections cannot all be blamed on heat. Experts often attribute the emergence of these diseases to inconsistent regulatory services. According to the deputy head of the federal service for veterinary and phytosanitary surveillance, Nikolai Vlasov, all of these cases, including anthrax in Yamal, are a consequence of "misguided reforms of the veterinary and agricultural services in the â€˜80s, when they liquidated a unified system that controlled dangerous infections of animals across the entire country."
This need for regulatory control is demonstrated by the case of encephalitis-carrying ticks, which have bitten more than 500,000 Russians this year — a record number. How to address the spread of ticks falls entirely under the control of officials in local municipalities. They determine the amount of resources they are willing to allocate to health issues like the ticks. Judging by the results of this season's outbreaks, they're apparently not willing to spend a whole lot.
Vlasov says there's an urgent need to return to compulsory vaccination, and give specialized research institutes the power to make decisions regarding outbreaks. What's for certain is that the host of infections brought to us this summer underscores the need for a serious discussion on how to ensure the biological safety of Russia.