Contaminated Heroin Suspected in European Anthrax Outbreak

Sep 12, 2012 | Robyn Correll Carlyle | Outbreak News

British health officials announced Monday that another drug user in Blackpool has died of an anthrax infection.

The individual died after injecting heroin suspected of being contaminated with anthrax spores. This is the second reported death in England and another in a spate of anthrax infections among drug users in the U.K. and northern Europe.

Ten cases have been reported among injecting drug users since early June. In addition to the two deaths in England, there have been cases reported in Scotland, Wales, Germany, Denmark and France. Britain’s Health Protection Agency (HPA) said that it is unclear whether the recent cases in Great Britain are linked to those in northern Europe. 

Anthrax is a bacterium typically found in livestock and spread through spores that infect humans after coming in contact with the skin, respiratory tract or via ingestion. It is not spread from person to person.

Heroin contaminated with anthrax spores is thought to be the source of the current outbreak.

The HPA is encouraging all heroin users to seek medical attention if they experience any of the signs or symptoms of anthrax infection. These include: redness or swelling at or around the injection site, fever or breathing difficulties.

Officials also warn that no route of consuming heroin – whether it be injected, smoked or snorted – is safe if the drug is contaminated with anthrax spores.

"Anthrax can be cured with antibiotics, if treatment is started early,” said Fortune Ncube of the HPA. "It is therefore important for medical professionals to know the signs and symptoms to look for, so that there will be no delays in providing treatment.”

Health officials have alerted walk-in clinics and emergency departments of the outbreak, and the National Treatment Agency has distributed posters and leaflets with information about anthrax to locations frequented by drug users, such as hostels, needle exchanges and treatment centers.

More cases are expected among heroin users as the HPA continues to investigate the outbreak.

A similar outbreak among injecting drug users occurred in 2009 and 2010, when 119 cases were identified in Scotland, five in England and two in Germany. 

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