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Anthrax Outbreaks Hit East and Southern Africa – Is a Collaborative Response Underway?

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East and Southern African nations, including Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, are currently facing anthrax outbreaks, collectively reporting over 1100 suspected cases and 20 related deaths since the beginning of this year.

Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals a total of 1166 suspected and 37 confirmed cases, with Zambia experiencing its most significant anthrax outbreak since 2011, affecting nine out of its ten provinces. As of November 20th, the country has reported 684 suspected cases, 25 confirmed cases, and four deaths, marking a substantial increase from sporadic cases reported in previous years.

Each country exhibits a unique outbreak pattern. In Kenya this year, three deaths have been reported. This contrasts with zero fatalities from over 200 suspected cases in 2022. Malawi, where anthrax is endemic in animals, reported its first-ever human case this year. Uganda has reported human anthrax cases in three districts, with 13 deaths, focusing on the importance of early reporting to health facilities. Zimbabwe, consistently reporting human cases since 2019, points up the need for strengthened preventive actions.

“To end these outbreaks we must break the cycle of infection by first preventing the disease in animals. We are supporting the ongoing national outbreak control efforts by providing expertise as well as reinforcing collaboration with partner agencies for a common approach to safeguard human and animal health,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.

The bacterial disease Anthrax, which affects domestic and wild herbivores, transmits to humans through contact with infected animal carcasses or contaminated animal products. While rare, individuals have reported person-to-person transmission, and cutaneous anthrax represents the most prevalent form globally, constituting over 95% of human cases.

Also Read: West Africa Battles Diphtheria Outbreak: Urgent Need for Vaccination and Treatment

Multidisciplinary teams deploy at the country level. They assess, identify gaps, and strengthen the outbreak response. WHO is closely working with FAO, UNEP, and OIE to coordinate responses, leveraging One Health Platforms.

Various factors, such as climatic shocks, food insecurity, low risk perception, and exposure through handling infected animal meat, likely fuel the outbreaks. With a heightened risk of regional spread, Zambia has intensified control measures, vaccinating over 122,000 livestock with FAO support.

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