London health officials issue heroin anthrax alert

LONDON (Reuters) - British health authorities issued an alert to drug users on Friday after a drug injecting heroin user in London tested positive for anthrax infection.

The anthrax case was the first seen in an injecting drug user in England since nine people died in Scotland and another in Germany during December and January, and suggests contaminated heroin is circulating in Europe, the government’s Health Protection Agency (HPA) said in a statement.

European health authorities said last month they believed a batch of heroin was circulating in the region that had been contaminated with anthrax, a fairly common bacteria whose spores can be used as a biological weapon.

The HPA said 19 cases of anthrax had so far been confirmed in Scotland, and similarities between those and the London case and that the heroin, or a contaminated cutting agent mixed with the heroin, was the likely source of infection.

Brian McCloskey, the HPA’s director in the British capital, said there was no evidence of person to person transmission in this case and the risk to the general population, including close family members of the infected patient, was “negligible.”

“While public health investigations are ongoing, it must be assumed that all heroin in London carries the risk of anthrax contamination. Heroin users are advised to cease taking heroin by any route, if at all possible, and to seek help from their local drug treatment services,” he said in a statement.

Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by spores of bacillus anthracis bacteria. It 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 spores are inhaled, the infection can take hold quickly and by the time symptoms show, it can be too late for successful treatment with antibiotics.

The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), which monitors health in the European Union, said last month that 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.

Editing by Alison Williams