As if their lives didn't suck enough already, what with all the HIV, hepatitis, and chronic constipation, it recently surfaced that smack fanatics in Europe should now be wary of anthrax too. According to the National Treatment Agency, who has been circulating the imaginative poster you can see below, anthrax-infected heroin has already caused two deaths in the UK, with a further ten cases reported across Germany, France, and Denmark.
I'm sure these posters and the creative minds behind them meant well, but I can't really see how they will keep heroin addicts away from the drug. I mean, they have proved themselves to be quite the determined bunch. So I thought I'd do my good deed of the day and speak about the phenomenon to Dr. Fortune Ncube, an expert in blood-born viruses with the Health Protection Agency.
VICE: So the posters that have been going up around Croydon are pretty scary.
Dr. Fortune Ncube: For the moment they are merely a precaution.The National Treatment Agency has circulated posters and leaflets about anthrax contamination, which are aimed at heroin users, to local treatment centers and to other organizations who are in touch with drug users who might not be in contact with drug services. For example, hostels, housing departments, needle exchanges, benefit offices, community pharmacies, and social work departments.
So, how does heroin become infected with anthrax?
Investigations during the Scottish Anthrax outbreak in 2009-2010 suggested that animal skins (particularly goat skins) are used during the transport of illegal heroin from its source country to the UK. Contamination with anthrax spores from a goatskin is therefore a plausible explanation for the origin of the spores, imported via heroin to the UK. Drug users may become infected with anthrax when they use the heroin contaminated with anthrax spores.
What advice would you give anyone who thinks they may be infected?
We urge all heroin users to seek urgent medical advice if they experience signs of infection such as redness or excessive swelling at or near an injection site, or other symptoms of general illness such as high temperature, chills, severe headaches, or breathing difficulties. Early treatment with antibiotics is essential for a successful recovery.
Say someone really has a hankering for some brown sugar. Are there any precautions they can take to lessen their chances of contracting anthrax?
Drug users may become infected with anthrax when heroin is contaminated with anthrax spores. This could be a source of infection if injected, smoked, or snorted. There is no safe route for consuming heroin or other drugs that may be contaminated with anthrax spores.
As you said, the last anthrax-contaminated heroin outbreak was in 2009 and it infected five people in England, 119 in Scotland, and two in Germany. In the event this outbreak escalates, what are the precautions you guys are taking?
It’s likely that further cases among people who inject heroin will be identified as part of the ongoing outbreak in European countries. The Department of Health has alerted the NHS to the possibility of patients coming to emergency departments and walk-in clinics with symptoms suggestive of anthrax.
Is there any risk of Anthrax being passed on to non-heroin users who have come into contact with someone who is infected?
It is extremely rare for anthrax to spread from person-to-person. Airborne transmission from one person to another does not occur; there have been one or two reports of anthrax spread through skin contact, but this is very, very rare.
Phew. Thanks Dr. Ncube!
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