Anthrax outbreak in NSW ‘does not ring alarm bells’, say experts

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 20th March 2013

Experts say there is nothing to worry about, after reports emerged yesterday of an outbreak of anthrax near Moree in northern New South Wales. The NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) has launched an investigation into the deaths of 37 cattle. The properties involved have been quarantined and the NSW DPI said the outbreak has been contained.

Anthrax is an infectious disease, caused by a type of bacteria called Bacillus anthracis. Both animals and humans are susceptible to the disease. Infection in humans most often involves the skin, but the disease can also enter the gastrointestinal tract, or lungs. It is most dangerous when it enters the gastrointestinal system or the lungs. The disease is treatable with antibiotics.

“The current outbreak does not ring alarm bells with me from a human health point of view,” said Dr David Beggs is a lecturer in cattle in the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Melbourne.

“It doesn’t spread like an infectious disease between people and/or animals. Because of this, we can successfully contain the disease through a combination of carcass disposal, quarantine and vaccination. Australia has no anthrax to speak of at the moment and because of that, we call even a single case an ‘outbreak’,” said Dr Beggs.

Julian Rood, Professor of Microbiology in the Department of Microbiology at Monash University, agreed that the current outbreak is not overly concerning for human health. Human beings can pick up the disease from infected cattle by handling infected material, but in cases like this humans usually pick up the skin form of the disease, which is far less dangerous than its other forms.

Professor Rood said that the current situation is “quite different from the systemic form of the disease that was an issue during the ‘anthrax in the mail’ problems in the US some years ago. This inhalation form of anthrax is much more dangerous and quite different to the situation here.”

Outbreaks of anthrax are “rare but not uncommon”, according to Professor Rood, because the disease creates a spore form of the bacterium, which can survive in soil for a long time. “So you can have an outbreak of disease, the spores can enter the soil and then many, many years later the spores can infect another animal,” said Professor Rood.

Australia has in place a national plan of action for dealing with outbreaks of the disease. Details can be found on the Federal Department of Agriculture Forestries and Fisheries website.