Book Excerpt: 'Anthrax'

My part of the assignment is to interview the victims' families, if I can find them. We have no record of names or addresses. Yekaterinburg, an industrial city with a population of 1.2 million, as yet has no public telephone directory. Nonetheless, I optimistically carry in my suitcase a hundred copies of a brief questionnaire that I have prepared and tested in translation. Our team brings other expertise to the expedition. The congenial Dr. Alexis Shelokov, who speaks fluent Russian, is a vaccine expert from the Salk Institute with a long career in public health. The more reserved Dr. David Walker is chief of pathology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. We are hoping that reports in the Russian press will prove true, that autopsy samples have been preserved by two pathologists who worked during the 1979 outbreak.

The fifth member of our team is veterinarian Martin Hugh-Jones from Louisiana State University, a member of the World Health Organization's Anthrax Research and Control Working Group, and an avid world traveler. The veterinary perspective is essential. Anthrax is a zoonosis, a disease that can travel from animals to humans. It is almost always associated with grazing animals, especially sheep, cows, goats, and horses, that pick it up from contaminated soil, by either eating or inhaling the tough spores that are the dormant form of its deadly bacteria.

Anthrax is as old as pastoralism and the origins of civilization. It might be the Sixth Plague, the sooty "morain," in the Book of Exodus that kills livestock and affects people with black spots. It is probably Apollo's "burning wind of plague" that begins Homer's Iliad.

Pack animals were his target first, and dogs but soldiers, too, soon felt transfixing pain from his hard shots, and pyres burned night and day.

In ancient Roman times, Virgil's Georgics lamented the shortage of animals caused by what again was most likely anthrax.

Ghastly Tisphone rages, and … drives before her Disease and Dread… The rivers and thirsty banks and sloping hills echo to the bleating of flocks and incessant lowing of kine. And now in droves she deals out death, and in the very stalls piles up the bodies, rotting with putrid foulness, till men learn to cover them in earth and bury them in pits.

Virgil also noted the other hazard of anthrax, that it spreads to humans, not by human-to-human contact, but by human contact with infected animals:

For neither might the hides be used, nor could one cleanse the flesh by water or master it by fire. They could not even sheer the fleeces, eaten up with sores and filth, nor touch the rotten web. Nay, if any man donned the loathsome garb, feverish blisters and foul sweat would run along his fetid limbs, and not long had he to wait ere the accursed fire was feeding on his stricken limbs.

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