Anthrax - From Russia with Love

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Editor's note: the following article was developed from a lecture given by Dr. David Walker in 1994. It is a disconcerting account of how the worst recorded outbreak of anthrax, a disease caused by Bacillus anthracsis bacteria, was handled in Russia in 1979. Dr. Walker (currently a Professor of Pathology and Chairman of the Department of Pathology at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) was intimately involved in the studies that were done after the outbreak. There is a short addendum at the end of this article.

This article recounts the chilling, yet fascinating story of the deadliest outbreak of anthrax in recorded history. Anthrax is a bacterium (germ) that can cause a serious, sometimes fatal infection. Anthrax can be used as a weapon. In 2001, anthrax was spread through the mail in a powder. Twenty-two people were infected. The events that occurred in Sverdlovsk, Russia, in 1979 demonstrate what can happen when anthrax is released into the air.

The Outbreak

This was the ninth day of the mysterious, fatal epidemic that struck Sverdlovsk in early April of 1979. Autopsies already had been performed on 37 victims who died of an unknown disease. Yet neither the clinicians nor the pathologists had identified the cause of the epidemic. Moreover, as you can imagine, the members of the pathology department were frustrated and overburdened with work. So, on this day, Dr. Faina Abramova, who had been chief of pathology at hospital #40, returned from retirement to help perform the autopsies.

The first autopsy Dr. Abramova performed was number 38 of the 42 ultimately performed by the local pathologists. The patient was a 43-year-old man who had had weakness and fever for two days. He was admitted to the hospital where he died four days later.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 12/16/2013