Melting Ice Unleashes Live Anthrax From Dead Reindeer Frozen Since WWII

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CC BY 2.0. Russian reindeer sled, late 19th century. (Wikimedia Commons)

Anthrax-spewing zombie reindeer? A Siberian heatwave has given new life to the hibernating infectious disease; dozens now hospitalized.

Ah, climate change. Say what you will about its causes or consequences, but one thing’s for sure. Higher temperatures have been melting ice, revealing curiosities that have been frozen for decades if not centuries or millennia. The latest horror-story-plotline come to life? “Anthrax spewing zombie deer,” as Bloomberg News describes them, have emerged from thawing permafrost in northern Siberia, sparking an outbreak of the rare and deadly bacterial disease.

The outbreak has occurred on the Yamal Peninsula in northern Siberia, a region that hasn’t seen anthrax since 1941. The Arctic Siberian district has faced temperatures ranging from 77F to 95F for a month or so; officials believe that the heat melted permafrost and exposed an infected reindeer carcass. Although many of us may be more familiar with anthrax as an agent used in warfare, it is a natural disease caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis and can survive in the environment for a century or more by forming spores. In the Sakha Republic, just east of the region where the outbreak occurred, there are some 200 burial grounds of animals that died from anthrax in the past.

The Siberian Times reports, “We have a significant change in our climate in this region. Global warming can be behind the return of anthrax.”

As of now, a total of 72 people from nomadic herder families are in the hospital, 41 of them are children. One child has died and eight others have been officially diagnosed with anthrax, notes the Siberian Times, it is expected that the number will rise as more testing is confirmed.

Compounding the tragic news is the death of 1,200 reindeer that have succumbed to the heat and infection from the disease.

People in the region have been evacuated and Russia has sent biological warfare troops – Chemical, Radioactive and Biological Protection Corps, to be precise – to help quell the emergency.

Anna Popova, director of state health watchdog Rospotrebnadzor, visited the region and says that “all measures are now being taken to minimize the risks.” While she assures that there is no risk of the disease spreading, she warns of the need for diligence.

“We need to be ready for any manifestations and return of infection. The territory, which has had no anthrax in animals or people since 1941, and which has been considered free from infection since 1968, demonstrates that this infection is subtle.”

The ice taketh away and then the ice giveth back. One can only wonder what other relics from history will be revealed as the melting ice coughs up its prizes?