An unprecedented heatwave in the far north of Russia has hospitalized more than 70 people who are suspected of having anthrax, an infection caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis. More than half of those experiencing the sickness are children, and a 12-year-old boy was recently claimed the first victim. At least nine people have already been officially diagnosed with the disease.
This is the first such outbreak of anthrax in the Yama peninsula since 1941. It is being blamed on the thawing of corpes—either reindeer, human, or both.
On Monday the Siberian Times reported that "in a new development, the cause of the anthrax outbreak could have been infected human remains from a local burial ground, officials have admitted. Until now, the deadly disease was believed to have been caused by hot weather melting the permafrost and exposing the corpse of a contaminated reindeer. Today it was revealed that a cemetery close to last month's shock outbreak…is now under suspicion too."
To combat the anthrax outbreak, the Russian Army's biological warfare troops are helping to vaccinate animals against the infection as well as incinerate carcasses of diseased reindeer.
Anthrax, which in the United States is more well known as a biochemical attack powder, is often found in its inactive spore form in human or animal remains that are frozen in permafrost. But when activated by heat it can spread quickly and cause pneumonia, blood infection, and death. Anthrax can be treated with antibiotics, but they must be administered in the early stages of the infection.
Russia's average temperature has increased by about 0.75 degrees Fahrenheit in the last decade, but as is the case across the world, increases have been more pronounced in the Arctic regions. This year Alaska has been experiencing extremely intense heatwaves, and the state has recorded its warmest year-to-date and warmest June already this year.
A recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) revealed that June was the hottest in recorded history, with average temperatures across the planet more than 1.5°F hotter than the 20th century average. According to the report, north-central Russia and the Russian Far East experienced some of the biggest temperature departures, with averages 6°F above average or higher.
"While the El Niño event in the tropical Pacific this winter gave a boost to global temperatures from October onwards, it is the underlying trend which is producing these record numbers," said Walt Meier, a sea ice scientist at NASA Goddard, in the report.