The Health Protection Agency (HPA) is aware that a person who injected heroin has been diagnosed with anthrax infection in Suffolk and has died.
There is an ongoing outbreak of anthrax among people who inject drugs in a number of countries in Europe with 13 cases now identified since early June 2012. The latest case in Suffolk brings the total number affected in the UK to seven – five in England (including four fatalities), one in Scotland and one in Wales. The source is presumed to be contaminated heroin.
It is unclear as yet whether these recent cases are linked to the cases in Europe (four in Germany, two in Denmark and one in France) but the HPA is continuing to monitor the situation.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) have concluded that heroin users in Europe are still at risk of exposure to anthrax.
Dr Chris Williams, Consultant in Communicable Disease Control at the HPA (Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire) said:
“Anthrax can be cured with antibiotics, if treatment is started early. It is therefore important for medical professionals to be alert to the possibility of anthrax infection in heroin users presenting with signs and symptoms – which include severe soft tissue infections or blood poisoning – to prevent any delays in providing treatment.
“It is possible that further cases may be seen in people who inject heroin. People who use drugs may become infected with anthrax when the heroin they use is contaminated with anthrax spores. This could be a source of infection if injected, smoked or snorted - there is no safe route for consuming heroin or other drugs that may be contaminated with anthrax spores.”