Anthrax phobia

Maswood Alam Khan
Anthrax infection among people is nothing new and microbes of anthrax have been living inside and outside the bodies of animals in passivity for a long time in our country. Anthrax-infected animals like cows and goats have also been slaughtered and their meat consumed by humans and many anthrax-infected patients have also been diagnosed confirmed and treated. But this time the outbreak of the disease has caught attention of the people, thanks to vigilance of the media with the first report of the disease in Sirajganj on August 20 and afterwards in Pabna, Tangail, Kushtia, Meherpur, Chuadanga and Rajshahi. More than 480 people in eight districts of Bangladesh have been infected by anthrax, this anthrax outbreak being the largest in the history of Bangladesh.

Fear is much more infectious and panicky than microbes. Fear transmits more quickly among people than bacteria can. The bacteria Bacillus Anthracis which causes the disease anthrax is creating widespread fear at the expense of meat traders who have suffered a huge loss on the eve of Eid-ul-Fitr and to the pleasure of some unscrupulous physicians who have reaped huge benefits by prescribing strong antibiotics to anyone who visited them with a lesion on hand, head or neck.

The anthrax panic has been intensified with the report of deaths in Dhamrai of more than 50 birds and animals (ducks, chickens, pigeons, crows, dogs and cats) that were believed to have taken blood or meat of three slaughtered cows. The cows were bought jointly by 41 families on the occasion of Eid. Those cows were supposedly brought from Sirajganj where the first outbreak of anthrax was reported. The livestock officials have however confirmed that the deaths of the birds and animals at Dhamrai were not related to anthrax.

Anthrax is an acute disease and the cattle, if infected, suffer from severe fever and die within two to three hours. The disease mainly infects cattle and cannot spread from human to human. People are affected only if they nurture the affected animals, slaughter them, separate their skin and cut or process their meat, or cook and consume an affected animal’s meat. There are however effective vaccines against the disease. Experts say proper treatment with antibiotics can cure it completely in a matter of ten days.

Tragically, misdiagnosis of a disease, in case of a panicky outbreak, takes a heavy toll in our society. Prudent doctors are hesitant to prescribe antibiotics for treating minor diseases like normal flu and wait for a while to watch the behavior of a disease like anthrax before prescribing any strong antibiotic because of its potential side effects, particularly for children. High doses of strong antibiotics may impair bone growth and cause gastrointestinal problems.

But, many people in our country having no knowledge about the basics of medical science try to boast about their so-called knowledge of medicine and put undue pressures on private physicians to prescribe them and their children antibiotics for a quick remedy and many doctors are not hesitant to push their pens onto their prescriptions to push antibiotics into patients as much or as strong as there is the demand from the eager patients or their guardians. So, an outbreak of a disease like anthrax or dengue is always a bonanza for most of our physicians.

Health officials have confirmed that the deaths of more than 50 birds and animals at Dhamrai on Saturday were not caused by anthrax and they are suspecting poisoning of blood and meat of the slaughtered cows as the real cause of the deaths. If their suspicions ultimately hold true, after the viscera report on the collected samples of the dead animals and birds is published, the incident should be taken as a lesson for us that slaughtering animals at any place and leaving the blood and the residual of the slaughtered exposed to open air may be dangerous. There cannot be a better timing for such a lesson with Eid-ul-Azha going to be celebrated just after a couple of weeks when thousands of oxen, cows, goats and sheep are going to be slaughtered at private places on private initiatives with no supervision from the health or veterinary officials.

During my stay at Kuala Lumpur for about four years in the late 1990s never ever during Eid-ul-Azha festivals I heard about or watched animals being slaughtered in private places the way animals are slaughtered in our country.

Children in Malaysia are also not encouraged to watch the gory scenes of slaughtering animals unlike the way the children in our society are goaded on to watch the scenes and in some cases to slaughter the animals in their own hands.

In Malaysia, as I saw, mostly inside the mosque premises the sacrificial animals used to be slaughtered and the meat delivered to the buyers properly maintaining religious rituals and hygienic ways. On other occasions, the animals were slaughtered in the designated slaughter houses in the most scientific manner while ensuring ‘Halal’ meat.

The anthrax outbreak throughout the country and the recent report of unusual deaths of birds and animals at Dhamrai should be deemed wake-up calls for us to rethink how we should remodel our culture of slaughtering animals. There must be a set of strict laws as to slaughtering animals.

Slaughtering houses, in sufficient numbers, have to be provided by all the local authorities and slaughtering on private initiatives must be banned henceforth. More importantly, there needs to be developed awareness among the public that many are dying of many diseases only due to lack of sanitation inside the markets and other spaces where animals are conventionally being slaughtered.

We should also think for a while whether it is good for child psychology if we goad our children to watch how a live animal is tied and slaughtered or to run a knife on the throat of a goat or a cock!