Anthrax, a spore produced by the bacteria, Bacillus anthracis which commonly live in soil around the world, has been identified in Hungarian beef. At least five people have been hospitalized due to concerns that they may have been exposed to those spores through their interactions with the infected animals and their toxic meat. The beef, which authorities say was obtained as a result of illegal slaughtering methods, has also been traced to a cannery, which has temporarily ceased production in order to prevent the spread of the deadly disease.
The connection between Bacilllus anthracis, a form of bacteria so common that it can be found in soils in every continent on Earth, and anthrax disease was first identified by German scientist Robert Koch in 1876. However, due to lack of effective treatments, the disease continued to kill numerous people and thousands of domesticated animals such as chickens, cows and horses every year. While scientists such as Pasteur and others did develop vaccines for anthrax around that same time, the formulas were designed only to be used on animals and thus humans continued to fear the bacteria’s deadly spores. However simply by immunizing animals, they prevented anthrax from popping up in places like Hungary and potentially infecting people through infect meat.
During World War II, anthrax was weaponized, stockpiled and prepared for deployment as a bio-weapon by many nations, including the Soviet Union, the Empire of Japan, and the United States. Fears concerning the possibility of such attacks inspired the Soviet Union to develop the first successful vaccine for humans in the 1940s. Meanwhile, it was only after the war had ended and the massive amount of research conducted to develop the bacteria (and its spores) for war was redirected towards the development of bio-weapon defense strategies that other countries began the production of other vaccines for humans. All of these vaccines, together with antibiotics, have made anthrax treatable and have, in some cases, dramatically reduced its mortality rate. It was unusual that the disease was identified in beef taken from a Hungarian animal living in contemporary times, given that vaccines are easily available and commonly used in the meat industry.
Despite these developments, anthrax is still considered a Class A bio-weapon by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, due to the ease with which it can be transported, its high mortality rate (if left untreated, many forms have mortality rates of around 90 percent), and its potential to cause “public panic and social disruption,” among other factors. This designation can be justified simply by recalling the sheer hysteria that commenced after five letters containing anthrax were sent to media outlets and two senators in October of 2001. At least 25 people were infected by the letters. Only five individuals perished in the attacks, yet that did not prevent the FBI from launching a massive investigation into the crime, which continued until they closed the case in 2010. Many others, including mail handlers and congressional staff members, were later found to have been exposed and infected by the spores as well, reaffirming the fact that anthrax, treatable thought it may be, is not a disease to be taken lightly.
The Hungarian government slaughterhouses which produce Hungarian beef will be seeking to find and destroy any meat identified as infected with anthrax. They should also continue vaccinating their animals against these toxic spores, which will never disappear from this Earth and will continue to infect the animals consumed by humans. Unlike the current, massive Ebola outbreak in Western Africa, this occurrence is unlikely to explode into an international health crisis. However, that does not mean that Hungary, its neighbors or even the international community should they take this anthrax scare lightly.
By Andrew Waddell