Human Anthrax and the role of Veterinary professionals in its prevention

As already mentioned, Anthrax is a disease of herbivorous animals which pick it from contaminated soils or from grazing herbage so close to the ground. It commonly occurs in periods of drought or prolonged dry seasons when pastures are scarce. Sometimes during heavy rains, Anthrax spores are carried by runoff to low-lying areas, contaminating them in the process. Animals that graze in lowland farms are prone to getting Anthrax whether in a rainy or a dry season.

Anthrax is a hemorrhagic fever (it causes bleeding from body openings) and kills both humans and animals in a very short time. In cattle, where it is common, it rarely exhibits clinical signs. Animals that previously looked healthy are found dead in the field. In one of the cases I handled in mid-January this year, one cow was seen lying in sternal recumbence and chewing card normally around 4 pm. The same was found dead at dusk.

Clinical signs are not apparent in cattle because the course of sickness is very short (a few hours to a day). Since animals cannot tell of pain, it is assumed they had no clinical signs. However, bleeding from the skin and body openings sometimes happens just before and immediately after death. The blood keeps oozing out and does not clot. After death, the carcass does not stiffen as expected as there is no rigor mortis.

a)

Blood oozing out at different points in the skin of a cow carcass that died of Anthrax (Photo by Dr. I. Mweheire)

 b)

Blood oozing out of the rectum. (Photo by Dr. I. Mweheire)

Man gets the disease from his interaction with animal products like meat, milk and skins/hides). Many farmers believe that when a food animal like a cow dies, then its meat should be salvaged. So rather than bury the carcass, they will get their pangas and get to work, skinning and eventually distributing the meat. Some of the carcass parts are taken to the nearby trading centers and distributed for sale. This is how most Anthrax outbreaks in humans occur. First, the people who butcher the animal get skin lesions and swollen hands/arms or other parts that were in contact with the meat. Then people who eat the meat get stomach aches, diarrhea and vomiting with blood stained content. These abdominal symptoms are common with people who roast and eat and those who cook the meat, as they taste when the meat is not yet completely cooked.

With extensive sensitization of communities, farmers and community members can report cases of sudden deaths of animals to the nearest sub county veterinary officer. When this is done before butchering the animal, public Veterinarians have a role to supervise the burial of any animal reported to have died suddenly in the community or on a farm. Vets are also trained in sample collection from these animals, treatment of animals still alive, prevention and control of Anthrax and safe disposal of the carcasses after death.

Most of all, they have to put their lives in danger to prevent any panga-welding human being from opening up the carcass for any purpose including dressing and distribution of the meat to fellow humans. In Ibanda district, from mid-January to April 2024, veterinary professionals conducted supervised burials of at least 13 cattle and 1 goat. Before the outbreak was reported in humans, some animals had died and were consumed, and at least four (4) human deaths were registered.

Veterinarians have a big role in making sure animals are vaccinated to prevent the disease in both animals and humans. When unvaccinated animals get infected, veterinarians can detect the disease and prevent further contact with humans. They can also treat cattle in contact with the sick or dead ones to reduce mortalities.

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