March 2, 2010

More Traces Of Anthrax Found In European Heroin

British health authorities reported that a batch of heroin contaminated with anthrax was probably still circulating in Europe, posing a serious threat to drug users.

The Health Protection Agency said that a second case has been confirmed of an injecting heroin user in London.  So far there has been two cases in England, 24 in Scotland and one in Germany. 

European health authorities said in January that they thought a batch of heroin contaminated with anthrax was circulating in the region.  Experts also said that the batch was unlikely to be deliberately contaminated.

Rachel Heathcook, from the London branch of the HPA, said no evidence was found of person-to-person transmission in any of the recent anthrax cases and the risk to the general population, including those close to patient that were infected, was "negligible."

"It is extremely rare for anthrax to be spread from person to person," she said in a statement.

Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by spores of bacillus anthraces bacteria.  It occurs in wild and domestic animals in Asia, Africa and parts of Europe.

Humans that touch an infected animal can get skin lesions and, if the spores are inhaled, then the infection can take hold immediately.  Once symptoms show, it can be too late for successful treatment and antibiotics.

Director of public health for the British capital, Lindsey Davies, said heroin users should be aware of the risks.

"I urge all heroin users in London to be extremely alert to the risks and to seek urgent medical advice if they experience signs of infection such as redness or swelling at or near an injection site or other symptoms... such a high temperature, chills or a severe headache," she said in a statement.

"This is a very serious infection for drug users," she added. "Early antibiotic treatment can be lifesaving."

The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), said last month that other EU countries might be at risk.

"Considering the complex international distribution chain of heroin and the link among cases in Scotland and Germany, the exposure to a contaminated batch of heroin distributed in several EU member states is probable," it said on its website.

However, it also said that it was possible the German and English cases are due to small amounts of heroin originating from Scotland, "in which case other EU member states than UK and Germany might not be affected."


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