An outbreak of anthrax in Siberia, which has reportedly been caused by a decades-old reindeer carcass unearthed during a heat wave, has killed at least one boy and thousands of reindeer, The Huffington Post reports.
Russian authorities have confirmed the death of a 12-year-old boy, a member of a family herding reindeer in the Yamal tundra, around 1,300 miles north of Moscow – the first fatality in Siberia linked to anthrax since 1941. 20 other patients have been diagnosed with the pathogen, according to CBS.
Dmitry Kobylkin, governor of the region, said the outbreak was likely due to a massive heat wave in Siberia that melted the permafrost – the thick layer of soil and organic material frozen in the coldest parts of the Earth. The unusual temperature spikes have seen temperatures rising to as much as 95 degrees Fahrenheit for months in parts of the icy tundra.
Officials started an investigation into the outbreak when reindeer began dying by the hundreds in late June.
The outbreak was traced to a 75-year-old reindeer carcass that had thawed when the permafrost melted, releasing dormant bacteria spores that got into the other reindeer.
The Siberian Times reports that over 2,300 reindeer have been killed by the outbreak. The remaining healthy animals, numbering more than 200,000, are being vaccinated and the Russian government said it would funnel $1.3 million to help the people affected by anthrax in the region.
Anthrax is not contagious. It is spread in humans through spores present in the air, drink and food, as well as open wounds. It can be treated with antibiotics, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The boy who died had contracted anthrax after eating venison from an infected reindeer.
Scientists have long been worried about the viability of anthrax spores lying in hibernation, the Washington Post notes. In 2011, researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences said that the permafrost melting could bring about consequences, including “the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th centuries…especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried.”
A separate study from the National Snow and Ice Data Center warned last year that thawing of the world’s permafrosts due to climate change could cause trillions of dollars in damages.