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Melting Siberian Permafrost Awakens Dormant Deadly Bacteria

Scientists in remote regions of Russia are becoming increasingly alarmed by herds of dead reindeer being found throughout Siberia. According to the Siberian Times, over 1,200 dead reindeer and thirteen seriously ill nomadic herders have fallen victim to a deadly bacteria that has been waiting decades beneath the region’s permafrost. The bacteria’s name? Anthrax.

Hello anthrax my old friend.

Hello anthrax my old friend.

The local government has declared a state of emergency and has mobilized emergency personnel to the area. According to the Siberian Times, the governor’s office in the arctic Yamalo-Nenets autonomous region issued a statement that the deadly bacterial outbreak is thought to stem from a long-dormant culture of anthrax that was suspended in cryostasis inside a reindeer carcass beneath the permafrost for years:

There are no cattle mortuaries in the area but considering the viability of the infectious agent of anthrax – 100 years and more – and its resistance to the change of temperatures, professionals assume that animals looking for food came across the site of an animal that died of anthrax and then infected each other.

Unusually hot weather in the area has led to record amounts of permafrost melting, some which has been frozen continuously for decades. As the ice has melted, long-dead animal carcasses have thawed, allowing the microbes inside to escape their icy prisons.

It is estimated that between 1,000 and 1,500 reindeer have fallen victim to the outbreak.

It is estimated that between 1,000 and 1,500 reindeer have fallen victim to the outbreak.

Many local residents have been evacuated or quarantined, and area children have been taken to a nearby boarding school for observation and prevention of further outbreak. Unfortunately, many of the reindeer in the area are being culled to stop widespread infection. This outbreak marks the first anthrax infection in the region for over 75 years. Because the bacteria can survive cold temperatures and feed on dead tissue, it can lie dormant in permanently cold areas such as Siberia for decades.

An image from a Siberian news broadcast shows residents being evacuated.

An image from a Siberian news broadcast shows residents being evacuated.

Anthrax is spread by the bacteria’s spores, either airborne or from direct physical contact with an infected organism. Since anthrax is most common in livestock and wild herbivorous animals, occupations that involve close contact with animals such as the Siberian reindeer herders are at especially high risk. Depending on the mode of transmission, anthrax can infect the lungs, gastrointestinal tract, or cutaneous tissues of infected organisms or people.

Cutaneous anthrax causes tissues to become necrotic.

Cutaneous anthrax causes tissues to become necrotic.

Russia has had its share of anthrax outbreaks over the years, including one at a Russian military facility in 1979 that some in the U.S. government suspected might have been an accident involving biological weapons testing. The Russian government did not disclose the details of this mysterious outbreak until 1992.