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Anthrax in livestock no cause for panic
Chance of humans catching anthrax from animals slim
By Scott Waltman American News Writer
Anthrax in livestock is not nearly as uncommon as in humans. But the occasional case is no reason for alarm.
Since 1993, 16 cases of anthrax in cattle have been reported in the state (South Dakota). None has been in the Brown County area. But even if one was, officials say there's no reason for panic.
The chances of a human catching anthrax from an animal are quite slim. But the bacteria that causes the disease is more common than one might think.
“It can happen anywhere. It's in the soil. If the conditions are right (animals can catch anthrax),” said Charles Seagren, South Dakota's assistant veterinarian and assistant meat director.
“The thing is if you walk on the prairie anywhere from Canada to Texas, those anthrax spores are going to be there if the conditions are right.”
Reports of anthrax in animals are most common in July, August and September after something, a flood perhaps, has caused a significant change in the soil, Seagren said. But what exactly causes anthrax to evolve from its all-but-indestructible dormant form to a life-threatening, active bacteria is hard to say.
Anthrax is a naturally occurring organism in soil, according to Susan Landon-Arnold, a microbiologist and professor of biology at Northern State University. It can rest harmlessly in dirt for years until the right environment sparks it into action. Anthrax can flourish with the right amount of moisture or carbon, she said.
“I know when we isolate organisms in the soil, there's always a possibility of (anthrax spores) popping up,” she said. However, “Even though it's in the soil, it's not like it's a public health risk.”
Forage-eating animals such as cattle, horses, sheep and goats are most apt to contract anthrax because their noses and mouths are so often near the ground. That makes the likelihood of them inhaling or ingesting the bacteria more plausible. Pigs are more likely to contract anthrax from eating infected carcasses.
Earlier this year, two cases of anthrax were reported northeast of Mitchell in Jerauld County. They resulted in the death of 11 buffalo, one bull, one cow and a donkey, Seagren said.
Aberdeen veterinarian Tim Sahli said anthrax can cause death in animals in as few as 12 hours. The bacteria gets into the blood and quickly breaks down organs such as the liver and lungs.
Diagnosing the disease is not always easy, he said. If a farmer notices a dead cow that seemed healthy the day before, anthrax has to be considered. If tests confirm the disease, other cattle must be given doses of anthrax vaccine and long-lasting antibiotics. The cattle won't spread the disease to each other like a virus, but they could get it from grazing on the exposed patch of land.
The carcasses of infected livestock should be thoroughly burned and deeply buried, Seagren said. If they aren't, the disease can be spread by anthrax spores from the decomposing body.
If farmers take appropriate precautions, they shouldn't be exposed to the disease. But if they cut into the carcass of an infected animal, they can easily spread it and could catch it, Sahli said.
Technically, a gardener or farmer could catch anthrax while working the land. So could a child playing in the dirt, but the chances of that happening are remote, Seagren said.
Just as remote is the chance of being exposed to the disease from meat that's been through a packing plant and purchased at a local grocery store. “It'd be very, very, very, very, very, very, very rare to pick something up at a meat market that would have anthrax,” he said.
Cattle are inspected at sale barns and meatpacking plants, he said.
Steve Helwig of Hub City Livestock Market in Aberdeen said he can't remember the last time he encountered a case of anthrax. There's no reason for concern, he said.
Sahli agreed. Asked if the recent anthrax scare is a reason to be leery of buying or selling cattle or consuming meat, he was emphatic. “No,” he said. “Absolutely not.”
He said the chance of an infected head of livestock even making it to market is low because the diseased animal will probably die beforehand.
But, Seagren said, “I don't want to say never because in Minnesota a year ago, they were having problems.” Some people consumed meat that had been exposed to anthrax, but the meat had been processed at a custom-exempt meat establishment where the animals were not required to be inspected. The people exposed in that incident all survived.
Once anthrax spores are active, they're easy to kill with fairly common prescribed medication, Landon-Arnold said. But there's no hope of wiping out the dormant form of the bacteria because it's so hardy.
“It'll probably be here long after we're gone,” Seagren said, pointing out that when the Egyptian pyramids were open in recent years, dormant doses of anthrax were discovered inside.
But as tough as anthrax is - resistant to extreme heat and cold - and as damaging as it can be to livestock, terrorists would be hard pressed to spread the disease through the nation's animals or meat supply. Seagren said if bioterrorists use the germ, they're far more likely to spread it over a metropolitan area using an airplane. And it's when humans, not animals, are diagnosed with anthrax that it's time to ask serious questions.
Said Seagren, “If there are cases in humans, why then you better be looking immediately for what the source is.”
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