Anthrax in heroin may be behind spate of addict deaths

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The Independent Online

Heroin contaminated at source with the deadly anthrax bacterium may have caused a spate of fatalities among addicts in Scotland, British scientists have discovered.

Heroin contaminated at source with the deadly anthrax bacterium may have caused a spate of fatalities among addicts in Scotland, British scientists have discovered.

The suspicion has been raised after Norwegian scientists confirmed earlier this month that a heroin addict who died in April had succumbed to anthrax, the first recorded case of the infection in Norway since 1967.

Researchers at the Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research (CAMR), the Government's biological defence laboratory at Porton Down, Wiltshire, have found indicators of anthrax infection in the blood of two of the Scottish victims, though no firm diagnosis has been made.

Ten people in Glasgow and Aberdeen have died in the past few weeks and 15 are seriously ill after injecting heroin into their muscles, rather than their veins, and developing pus-free lesions at the injection site.

They died hours after the appearance of symptoms including leakage of fluids around the heart and lungs and soaring white blood cell counts. Pathologists said that those who died had multiple organ failures consistent with overwhelming infection, but have been unable to specify what the infection was.

However, a report in New Scientist magazine says that two of the samples tested positive for an anthrax antigen, a chemical made by the body when it comes into contact with the bacterium.

Phil Hanna, an expert at the University of Michigan, told the magazine there could be a link with injecting into muscles rather than veins: the infection only spreads when anthrax spores are eaten by the body's defensive white blood cells. They do this more effectively in muscle than in blood.

Anthrax usually affects cattle and other herbivores, and is endemic in Africa, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, where most of Europe's heroin originates. The drug is often adulterated before being exported in order to bulk it up.

Les King of the Forensic Science Service, which analyses seized heroin in Britain, said: "Heroin can contain almost anything in small amounts. But no one checks it for infectious agents. There could be a long history of this, and we just haven't observed it till now."

The disease cannot, however, be passed between humans, so the risk of any contaminated drugs is limited to those who use them.

The Greater Glasgow Health Board has sent seven samples of blood to the CAMR, which is a world centre of expertise in anthrax for testing. The tests conducted so far "have been negative for traces of anthrax or any significant toxin", the health board said, but antibiotics used to treat the abscesses could have killed the bacteria.

The CAMR has not yet received any samples of fluid from the brain or spine, which could demonstrate for certain if anthrax caused the deaths.The diagnosis on the Norwegian was only made after tests found that fluid extracted fluid from his brain and spine contained bacteria, which were confirmed by DNA analysis as anthrax.

An editorial in New Scientist suggested that the bacterium, which produces spores that are released from the blood of dead animals, might even have been the cause of past surges in deaths of heroin addicts, which are usually blamed on over-pure supplies. "No one looks further," the magazine noted.