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Anthrax spreads from reindeer to humans in an outbreak at the ‘end of the world’

Nenets herders are seen with reindeer at a camping ground in far-northern Russia on Aug. 2, 2015. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

The Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug is not a place that gets much media coverage. This subdivision of Siberia — made up mostly of flat, lake-pocked tundra — is the size of California, Texas, Montana and both Dakotas combined, with tens of thousands of square miles to spare.

The nomadic people of the region call themselves the Nenets, and they call their remote, windswept land Yamal, which means “the end of the world.” They move seasonally with herds of reindeer through the endless expanses of lichen and dwarf shrubs that extend as far as the southern forests. For most of the year, it is frigid.

Since July, however, something unusual has been afoot in Yamal: Temperatures have soared, reaching 95 degrees. In the ensuing thaw, the once-frozen carcasses of reindeer have attracted bacteria, including one that causes anthrax.

So, for the first time since 1941, there is an anthrax outbreak. One child has died, and almost 100 other Nenets have been hospitalized, with dozens of confirmed cases. More than 2,300 reindeer have succumbed to the disease.

“There is no epidemic in Yamal. Only a small area was quarantined,” the region’s governor, Dmitry Kobylkin, told the Associated Press.

Anthrax can be caused by bacterial spores commonly found in herbivorous mammals. Contact can lead to infection, which is characterized by fever, stomach pain, diarrhea and vomiting. For the Nenets, living alongside reindeer carries this risk, but anthrax bacteria normally can’t survive in the region’s climate.

The Nenets’ culture and mode of survival are largely built around coexistence with reindeer. Thick coats are made from their hide and sewn together with their sinew. The hides are also used to cover the tents in which the Nenets live and provide extra protection from the wind. The animals’ meat is served raw, frozen or boiled, and often eaten with a cup of their blood, which is rich in vitamins.

According to Survival International, an organization that aims to preserve endangered indigenous peoples, “Every Nenets has a sacred reindeer, which must not be harnessed or slaughtered until it is no longer able to walk.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that anthrax bacteria are exceedingly rare in the United States, with few or no cases reported in the country in recent years.

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