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October 13, 2001
1639 IST

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Anthrax scare in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka

Papri Sri Raman in Madras

The administration in the western Tamil Nadu district of Mudumalai forest reserve is on alert following reports that an elephant died of anthrax.

Acceding to demands of worried citizens' groups, Nilgiri district chief Supiya Sahu placed the local administration on alert.

"All precautions at the famous wildlife reserve of Mudumalai are being taken," he said.

People are anxious, as an elephant in the adjoining Bandipur forest is reported to have died last week from anthrax.

It is feared that elephant herds of the Mudumalai ranges, which roam a wide area of the forests on the Western Ghats, may contract the disease from infected elephants.

Anthrax is a rare disease caused by the spores of the bacteria Bacillus Anthrasis. It causes enlargement of the spleen and is also known as spleen fever or 'wool sorter's disease'.

It is carried from animals to the human population. Workers in dairy farms, handlers of meat, hide, animal hair and bristles are especially at risk. It is treated with penicillin.

Animals die within eight hours of contracting the disease, which can be identified by oozing of blackish blood from the nose and ears. As a precaution, the carcass should be buried deep under lime.

Anthrax, also a potent agent in biological warfare, is back in the news since the September terror attacks in the US. Some cases of anthrax in humans have been reported from the US and authorities there maintain there is little chance of the disease having spread due to natural causes.

Victims get high fever, vomit and bear symptoms similar to meningitis and encephalitis in the last stages. Blisters also appear on the skin.

If local reports are to be believed, the Mudumalai ranges in western Tamil Nadu, contiguous with the Bandipur forest range bordering Karnataka state, Vellore and Dharmapuri districts and areas such as Ambur, Vanniyambadi, Karamadai, Metupalayam and Alagnallur where extensive leather tanning is done are anthrax-prone.

In the 1980s, two full-grown elephants in the Mudumalai sanctuary and cows at the Vazhaithottam died of anthrax. The last reported anthrax deaths were of elephants in 1993-95 in the Mudumalai ranges, according to officials of the Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University.

Dr R Manickam, dean of the Madras Veterinary College, said the last large-scale attack of anthrax among humans in India was reported from the northeastern state of Mizoram in the early 1990s, when 17 people died after eating contaminated meat.

Meanwhile, Karnataka has sounded an alert for anthrax infection among cattle and human beings following the death of two people due to the highly infectious bacterial disease.

The National Institute of Communicable Diseases had reported the death of two villagers of Alagurke village in Karnataka's Kolar district due to anthrax.

Another person from the same village, Sriramappa, who survived the anthrax infection, said: "This has never happened before, how can it happen now?"

Sriramappa survived the deadly anthrax attack after doctors at the Devaraj Urs Medical College Hospital in Kolar operated on his unusually swollen hand some weeks ago.

"He does not believe it, but he admitted to de-skinning an animal that had died due to some disease that, we believe, had all symptoms of anthrax. And he had also a cut on his finger that led to his getting the bacterial infection," Borappa, superintendent at the hospital said.

Sriramappa was operated twice at the hospital, while microbiology and community health medicine department officials analysed local causes of the disease.

Tests at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases finally confirmed Sriramappa, who reached the hospital in time, had suffered from an anthrax invasion.

Indo-Asian News Service

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