KABUL, Afghanistan – Eight Afghans who ate an infected camel as part of a religious celebration died of what health experts suspect is a rare case naturally occurring anthrax, officials said Saturday.
The deaths, in the southwestern province of Nimroz, included two women and an infant, said Dr. Abdullah Fahim, an adviser to Afghanistan's health minister. Ten others fell sick.
Laboratory results have not yet been completed, so officials cannot say positively the deaths were anthrax related, said Fahim. Results were expected in the next two days.
A sample of the suspected anthrax will be sent to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, in the U.S. State of Maryland.
"We're genotyping it for biosecurity but also to match it up in case there are any other anthrax outbreaks in Afghanistan," said an official in the Ministry of Health, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on the issue.
The official called the gastrointestinal outbreak of anthrax "extremely rare" and said there had been only four or five similar cases at such a large scale in medical literature.
The outbreak began when two men in a remote area of southwest Afghanistan along the border with Iran tried to sell a sick camel, said Ghulam Dastagir Azad, the governor of Nimroz province.
Nobody would buy the camel and the men instead killed it and distributed the meat to needy families, as is the custom during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.
The two men "were the first victims. They cooked the meat and 12 hours later they were dead," said Azad. "Then some of the families who cooked (the meat) in their homes became victims."
Anthrax — an acute infectious disease caused by a spore-forming bacterium — occurs in wild and domestic animals like cattle, sheep, goats and camels, according to the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It can also occur in humans when they are exposed to infected animals, or when anthrax spores are used as a weapon, such as what happened in the United States in 2001 in attacks through the mail that killed five people.
Fahim said there is no evidence to suggest terrorism played any part in the outbreak. "But we should be on alert also. We see the strength of suicide attackers growing, so we should consider this possibility."