Friday September 14, 2007
The fear of anthrax doesn’t seem to spreading like the disease itself.
Despite an outbreak of anthrax that killed 52 bison in the Fairview area last month, public response seems to be indifferent in a region that rarely sees it.
That may be, in part, because the disease only spreads from spores hidden in the soil and not between animals, said local veterinarian Dr. Aleeta Haas of the West County Animal Clinic in Grande Prairie.
“I haven’t had many calls about the anthrax, which is kind of surprising because you would think you would get flooded with calls,” she said. “When we have blackleg outbreaks, it seems everyone is calling and acting like it’s a new disease, even though it’s been around forever. With the anthrax, they may feel they have a better grip on it but I’m just not sure.”
Both blackleg and anthrax show similar symptoms, are spread to animals from spores in the pasture’s soil, and both cause sudden death. However, blackleg is more common and a vaccine is readily available, while a vaccine for anthrax is not and veterinarians under federal jurisdiction simply quarantine the pasture land where the outbreak occurred.
“If a veterinarian sees a sudden death that has similar characteristics to anthrax, (they) would call the federal veterinarian because it is a reportable disease and they have to make the diagnosis,” said Haas. “We make the diagnosis based on our suspicions but they do the lab diagnosis for it and then the federal veterinarians are responsible for containment of the disease.”
Despite a significant number of animals dying from the disease on a pasture near Fairview, the disease has been contained to one field, and so far no new cases have been reported, said Sandra Stephens, disease control specialist for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
“We are still looking at one premises and unfortunately there had been a number of animals on that premises that had been infected, but we’re not seeing the same extent of an outbreak that we had seen in (other provinces this year),” she said.
Anthrax was reported on 22 properties in Manitoba this summer while in 2006, 153 properties were quarantined in east-central Saskatchewan where more than 800 animals died. Yet in each case, people in Alberta seemed to be unaware of it, said Stephens.
“When you starting talking to people up in (Peace Country), many would not have actually recalled hearing about it because it’s not right in their area,” she said. “People just don’t internalize it as being something they need to look at.”
However, Stephens added, few people realize how resilient the anthrax bacteria really is. Spores that contain the bacillus anthracis bacteria that causes anthrax can survive in soil with high alkaline content for decades.
In many cases, it’s possible for beef producers to own pasture land for 30 years and not be aware of anthrax outbreaks that occurred 20 years before.
“Even though there might not be a laboratory record of it, sometimes anecdotal evidence would indicate there probably was some anthrax,” said Stephens.
Alberta’s low rate of anthrax cases has not encouraged it to develop as extensive a laboratory system for reportable diseases as they have in the other Prairie provinces. However, the CFIA is developing a new field site test that can speed up diagnosis while providing more accurate results.
“We are in the process of trying to evaluate and validate field site tests so if you have an animal carcass on pasture that’s died, you have a test a general practitioner could do right beside the animal and mostly determine if it’s anthrax or not,” said Stephens.
“It is still in the developmental stages, but we hope within the next few years that testing will be readily available.”
That alone may speed up response and containment of future outbreaks of not only anthrax, but the more common blackleg disease that turns up in the Peace Country. And even though anthrax remains a lower risk in Alberta than in other problems, Stephens said local beef producers should never get complacent with it.
“The take-home message is that this is an environmental disease and it’s one producers should always need to keep at the back of their minds,” she said.