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Anthrax in heroin kills eight in Europe

LONDON (Reuters) - Eight people have died of anthrax infection from using suspected contaminated heroin, European health authorities said on Saturday, and one expert advised users to stop taking the narcotic immediately.

A bag of heroin and drug paraphernalia are seen at an abandoned house in Ljubljana August 3, 2009. REUTERS/Bor Slana

Authorities said they believed a batch of heroin is circulating in Europe that is contaminated with anthrax, a fairly common bacteria whose spores can be used as a biological weapon.

“I would urge all drug users to stop using heroin immediately and contact local drug services for support,” Colin Ramsay, a consultant epidemiologist in Scotland, said in a statement.

A total of 15 heroin users in Scotland have been found to have anthrax infection since December. Seven of them have died.

The eighth victim was a 42-year-old man in Germany who died of anthrax infection in mid-December after injecting drugs, authorities said.

“It is now suspected that heroin with infectious anthrax spores (and possibly other psychoactive substances that can be injected) is in circulation in Europe,” the health ministry in Berlin said in a statement.

Anthrax infection occurs most often in wild and domestic animals in Asia, Africa and parts of Europe.

Humans are rarely infected but touching contaminated hides or hair can cause skin lesions. If the bacillus is inhaled, it can take hold quickly and by the time symptoms show up, it usually is too late for successful treatment with antibiotics.

The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), which monitors health in the European Union, said on its website that further anthrax cases were possible.

“The occurrence of 15 confirmed cases, including 8 deaths in a 5-week period is unusual and unexpected,” it said.

“Considering the complex international distribution chain of heroin, and the clustering in time of cases in Scotland and Germany, the exposure to a contaminated batch of heroin distributed in several EU Member States is possible.”

England’s chief medical officer Liam Donaldson issued an alert last week to doctors and hospital emergency rooms to be on the look out for anthrax poisoning.

The ECDC said investigations so far “strongly” suggested that all the cases had been infected by a common source, but said the heroin was unlikely to have been deliberately contaminated.

“Accidental contamination seems the most plausible explanation to these incidents,” it said.

Additional reporting by Brian Rohan in Berlin, editing by Michael Roddy