Rural America Used to Wild Anthrax

The contaminated letters recently sent as biological weapons produced America's first human anthrax cases in …
a) centuries
b) decades
c) weeks

The answer, "c," might not be so surprising to ranchers and residents in parts of the country who have lived amid anthrax all their lives — but rarely have gotten sick.

"There are certain things that a rancher knows about raising cattle," said Ed Curlett, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. "How to deal with anthrax is one of those things."

In a case this summer in western Texas, a man contracted the skin form of anthrax, apparently after attempting to skin a bison that had died of the disease, state health officials said. He was treated with antibiotics.

Found In Nature

"It's not a bioterroristic, intentionally criminal act," said Doug McBride, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Health. "Anthrax is found in nature in parts of the country, including parts of Texas. The organism itself in spore form can stay in soil for years."

Anthrax appears sporadically around the country, mostly along old cattle trails that ran from Texas to Canada, where health officials speculate anthrax from dead cattle settled in the soil. When conditions are right — such as when hot, dry weather follows cool, wet weather — the anthrax can reemerge and infect grazing animals that consume the spores. Anthrax usually occurs only in the summer.

This year, an estimated 1,600 animals in Texas — including about 1,200 wild white-tailed deer — are believed to have died from anthrax in what was a particularly bad season, state health officials said. Dozens of animals also died of apparent anthrax this summer in Minnesota, and 21 cattle died between Oct. 20 and 28 on a ranch in Santa Clara County, Calif.

Anthrax emerges so often in the part of western Texas where this year's human case occurred, the area around the towns of Del Rio, Rocksprings and Uvalde is known locally as the "anthrax triangle."

"It's just another one of the things we deal with, like a rabies outbreak or something like that," Carl Hellums, a rancher from Uvalde, told the ABC station WFAA-TV in Dallas.

Ranchers in the "anthrax triangle" often vaccinate their livestock against anthrax, which is recommended by state health officials and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for areas prone to the disease.

Human Cases Dwindling in Wild

But despite the occasional appearance of the disease among animals in some areas, human cases from natural sources are increasingly rare in the United States. There have been only three human cases in Texas since 1967, state health officials said. Nationwide, a skin anthrax case last year in North Dakota was America's first since 1992, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

In the North Dakota case, a man successfully was treated with antibiotics after handling five cows he believed died of anthrax (see Web link, in right column).

The human risk in the United States has gone down considerably since the early 1900s, when there were approximately 200 human anthrax cases from sources in the wild, according to the CDC. The last of 18 20th-century human cases of the frequently fatal inhalational form of anthrax occurred in 1976.

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