Hippo deaths raise fears of anthrax epidemic

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of Ugandan hippos have died from an outbreak of anthrax, sparking fears of an epidemic that could devastate the country's emerging tourism industry.

Hundreds of Ugandan hippos have died from an outbreak of anthrax, sparking fears of an epidemic that could devastate the country's emerging tourism industry.

Game wardens at the Queen Elizabeth National Park in south-west Uganda called in German scientists in the early autumn, after they noticed several rotting hippo carcasses in the park's rivers.

This week, scientists from the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin confirmed that more than 200 hippos and some buffalo had died of anthrax, a bacteria that lives in soil and produces toxic spores that can stay active for several years.

John Bosco Nuwe, the park's chief warden, said the authorities were acting quickly to contain the disease. "We are vaccinating the livestock around the park or those in close proximity. We're asking telling people not to panic and to stop eating hippo meat," he said. The German scientists who identified the disease set up a task force to prevent it spreading to other animals. They will identify strains of anthrax, measure levels of contamination, and train Ugandan scientists to fight the disease.

Anthrax occurs naturally in most African countries but in the West, it is most commonly known as a laboratory-produced white powder that can be used as a biological weapon. Humans can catch the natural strain of anthrax if they eat or touch the carcasses of infected animals or drink unboiled water containing spores.

Aware of the damage an anthrax outbreak could do to the country's tourism industry, the Uganda Wildlife Authority has suspended boat trips on the Kazinga Channel. A spokesman said: "The reason we temporarily suspended the launch trips on the Kazinga Channel was because it was littered with the carcasses of dead hippos, which we believed was not a good sight for our tourists."

The authorities also launched a public education campaign, and are asking people to control their livestock and not eat bush meat. They now insist that the epidemic is under control and that the area is safe for visitors.

Wardens suspect the disease was carried into the park by cows brought in to graze by pastoralists living on the park's boundaries. The cattle also helped spread the disease from one part of the park to the other. Cattle have now been banned from grazing inside the park.

Anthrax affects most countries in Africa, especially those where cattle and game live side by side. In Zimbabwe, at least three people and 1,500 animals died from anthrax early this year when the disease jumped from livestock to humans.

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