Field of Science

Bugs, Drugs and Disease, and a Tale of Possible Terror Error?

Last year, the UK was in the midst of an outbreak of anthrax, in which resulted in 47 infections, and 13 deaths. Bigger than the 2001 letter bomb attacks. Hospitals up and down the country were put on alert. The news media were notified, and the public were told of the dangers. But there was no panic amongst the general public. A case of the famous British stiff upper lip?
Not so much. This was not a terrorist attack. This was just another occupational hazard for heroin addicts.
These people were the victims of this outbreak. The drugs that they were injecting in their veins were contaminated with spores of anthrax.
To get to the source of this problem, we need to look at where the heroin itself is coming from. The main supplier of heroin to Europe for the past ten years is Afghanistan. Yes, that Afghanistan.

(I was inspired by Mitchell and Webb. see here )

It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that this was in some way related to terrorism. However, I personally don't believe this to be the case.
Nobody stepped up and admitted to causing this attack. And why would they? To out and out admit a connection to the sale of drugs would ultimately damage their support. If they were indeed targeting addicts, then they were vastly overestimating the compassion that the public has for these individuals. The panic and terror caused by this event was conspicuous by its absence.

So if this was not a terrorist attack, then what is the more likely way in which the anthrax got into the heroin supply?
The answer lies in the bug that causes Anthrax. We know anthrax as a terrifying biological weapon, but it is also a living micro-organism. It's been around longer than war itself. it has it's own life cycle, its own intentions that are separate from those who would use it as a weapon.

Bacillus anthracis is the bacterium that causes anthrax. It is a pernicious little bug, which can survive in soil for long periods of time. It can get stuck to grass, where it is eaten by a cow, sheep or other such creatures. It then multiplies, secreting virulence factors which ultimately lead to the death of the host, which can take weeks. over this time, the host can spread the bacteria over a wide area through faeces.
Ultimately, the bacteria kill the host, and as it decomposes, they re-enter the soil, ready to re-start their lethal life cycle. 

These bacteria can then form highly tenacious spores that lie in wait for their next victim to accidentally graze them. Humans who come into contact with these animals or their leavings can become infected by this bacterium. 

It has been found worldwide in various places. There is an area that researchers refer to as the "Anthrax Belt" which stretches from the Middle east into Central Asia. And bang in the middle of it are the poppy fields of Afghanistan. These poppy field, which may be fertilized with the manure from infected livestock. Or carried from these fields in leather sacks made from the skins of animals with anthrax.
The spores can tough it out through the various processes that turn the poppy plants into heroin.
And the desperate user injects this bacteria into their blood stream.

This is a terrible problem, but it is just one of the many terrifying bacterial infections which a heroin user will expose themselves to. Contaminated needles are known to spread MRSA,  Streptococcus pyogenes, Pseudomonas, and this doesn't even count various terrifying viral infections like HIV. It's yet another hazard to which I.V. heroin users expose themselves.

Knox D, Murray G, Millar M, Hamilton D, Connor M, Ferdinand RD, & Jones GA (2011). Subcutaneous anthrax in three intravenous drug users: a new clinical diagnosis. The Journal of bone and joint surgery. British volume, 93 (3), 414-7 PMID: 21357967

Schmid, G., & Kaufmann, A. (2002). Anthrax in Europe: its epidemiology, clinical characteristics, and role in bioterrorism Clinical Microbiology and Infection, 8 (8), 479-488 DOI: 10.1046/j.1469-0691.2002.00500.x