Fears of an anthrax outbreak were growing last night after a drug user died from injecting contaminated heroin. The source has yet to be identified but it is suspected the death in Blackpool and an anthrax infection in Scotland in July may be linked to six other cases in Europe since June.
Concern was also mounting that the anthrax infection could be on the same scale or even worse than the outbreak among drug users that lasted from 2009-10 and affected 126 people – 119 of them in Scotland.
Drug charities, hospitals and GP surgeries have been alerted to the possibility of a fresh outbreak linked to heroin use. Of the eight cases since June, all of them believed to have been caused by contaminated heroin. Two were in Britain, three in Germany, two in Denmark and one in France. Three of the addicts died but five were diagnosed in time to be saved.
Anthrax is a bacterial infection usually derived from herbivorous animals, mainly cattle. Infections in humans are distinctive because they turn flesh, mainly in the arms, legs and groin, black. It is treatable with antibiotics but there can be long-term damage, with survivors usually having large areas of blackened flesh cut away.
The death in Blackpool was confirmed yesterday by the Health Protection Agency, which is concerned that more contaminated heroin is already on the streets. It is possible that the latest cases are part of the 2009-10 outbreak but experts believe it is more likely it is the result of fresh contamination. More cases are likely to emerge and the slow spread of the outbreaks in the UK and Europe, if they are linked, has close similarities to the pattern with which the 2009-10 outbreak began.
Dr Dilys Morgan, an expert in infections that spread between animals and humans, said: "It is likely that further cases among people who inject drugs will be identified as part of the ongoing outbreak in EU countries. The Department of Health has alerted the NHS of the possibility of [drug addicts] presenting to emergency departments and walk-in clinics, with symptoms suggestive of anthrax. "Anthrax can be cured with antibiotics, if treatment is started early. It is therefore important for professionals to know the signs and symptoms to look for, so that there are no delays in providing the necessary treatment."
A rapid risk assessment concluding that heroin users are still at risk of exposure to anthrax spores has been jointly put together by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.
Before the 2009-10 outbreak, anthrax among drug users was considered very rare, with only one previous case reported in Norway in 2000.
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