JOHANNESBURG The San bushmen did not see a potential threat when they stumbled upon a dead cow lying in a South African field. They saw precious meat. So they cooked and ate the animal.
It was only later, when the lesions with black spots began forming on their hands, that it became clear how the cow had died. It had anthrax, and now so did they.
The people who have been infected by the disease in recent months in the United States are not suffering alone.
But in places as far afield as Zimbabwe, Kyrgystan and Indonesia, authorities are more worried about suspicious cows than suspicious envelopes.
The cattle-borne form of the disease not the weaponized version created in a laboratory can be found in nearly every region of the globe with grazing animals.
“Anthrax is not strange. This has always been here and people get along with it,” said Eliphas Nyamogo, a teacher in Kenya. “I think it has been much scarier in the United States because it is not something they have had for many years.”
Last year, at least 2,000 people around the world contracted the disease from animals, according to incomplete statistics from the World Organization for Animal Health, which tracks human anthrax infections as well as animal outbreaks. The animals get the disease themselves from spores in the ground.
The South African government is concerned enough about the disease that every year it distributes nearly 100,000 pamphlets illustrated with cartoons of unhappy cows telling farmers to vaccinate their cattle and never to eat animals they suspect may have the disease.
The San who ate the cow in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province last January were sent to a local hospital when veterinary officials investigating an outbreak in local animals noticed their skin lesions.
A total of 15 persons were infected with the skin form of anthrax, treated with antibiotics and released.
“We get anthrax on a regular basis there,” said Dr. Jaco Pienaar, deputy director of the veterinary services in the Northern Cape Province, where the outbreak occurred.
Anthrax is believed to be thousands of years old. Some historians believe the fifth and sixth of the Bible’s 10 plagues the death of cattle, followed by a wave of boils represented an ancient anthrax outbreak.
“That’s exactly how it happens,” said Maryke Henton, an official at the veterinary research institute at South Africa’s Agricultural Research Council.
Anthrax thrives in cattle, sheep and goats. Its spillover into humans is purely an accident of nature, said Dr. Ottorino Cosivi, an official at the World Health Organization.
The vast majority of human cases are skin infections, caused by handling tainted meat. A few people get the more deadly intestinal infections by eating the infected meat, and on very rare occasions, anthrax is inhaled, usually by people working with wool or hides from infected animals.
Some epidemiologists roughly estimate that for every 10 infected animals, one person gets skin anthrax.
When an animal catches the disease and dies, infected fluids drip into the ground, turning it into an “anthrax field,” Dr. Cosivi said.
If another animal eats from the field, it too can become infected.
The spore can live in the ground for decades, and in at least one case has been found to live for centuries.
Heavy rains often trigger outbreaks, uncovering spores that had been buried under the surface. But droughts trigger outbreaks, too, concentrating the spores that may have blown into shrinking water holes.
“It stays in the soil for so long we can have an outbreak any day,” said Gerhard Schutte, general manager of South Africa’s Red Meat Producers Organization.
In southwestern Zimbabwe, at least 40 persons have been infected with the disease since October. A child died Oct. 26, probably after handling meat from infected cattle, said Dr. Christopher Zishiri, the local medical director.
In Kenya, two persons in the central district of Nyeri contracted skin anthrax after skinning a cow that had mysteriously died. They recovered after treatment.
A total of 396 persons contracted anthrax in Turkey last year. All of them survived, according to the Turkish Health Ministry.
The disease is widespread throughout Central Asia. Tajikistan reported 338 human cases in 2000, and 33 persons were infected in October of that year in one outbreak in Kazakhstan, mostly after illegally slaughtering sick cattle without veterinary supervision. India and Indonesia have also experienced recent outbreaks.
Six members of a Minnesota farm family were treated for anthrax last year when two of them showed signs of intestinal anthrax after eating meat from an infected cow they had raised and slaughtered.
But cases of natural anthrax are extremely rare in the United States, where stringent slaughterhouse regulations weed out bad meat.
Anthrax usually affects the world’s poorest, who don’t know of its dangers or are so hungry they don’t care.
Human anthrax will be difficult to overcome, said Dr. Huseyin Caksen, an official in the department of pediatrics at Turkey’s Yuzuncuyil University.
“As long as there is poverty, we will have this disease,” he said.