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Smallpox Could Make Deadly Return as Permafrost Melts in Siberia

In the 20th century, smallpox was one of the deadliest diseases on Earth, taking more than 300 million lives. The virus kills 30 percent of those infected by it, according to WHO. Thankfully, the disease was eradicated, and the last reported case was in Somalia in 1977. However, new reports suggest that climate change may be the cause for the return of this deadly disease.

The corpses of victims of a smallpox outbreak in Siberia in the 1890s are becoming exposed as the permafrost layer of soil covering them melts. The bodies could still be carrying traces of the virus, which means more people can become infected, reviving the disease after its eradication in 1979.

“Naturally, the bodies were buried under the upper layer of permafrost soil, on the bank of the Kolyma River,” Boris Kershengolts, deputy director for research at the Institute for Biological Problems of Cryolithozone, of the Siberian Branch of the Academy of Sciences, told The Independent. “Now, a little more than 100 years later, Kolyma’s floodwaters have started eroding the banks.”

This year’s permafrost melt has been three times faster than usual about the Arctic Circle, causing erosion near graveyards near a town where 40 percent of the population was wiped out during the epidemic, The Siberian Times reported.

July was the warmest month ever recorded, said Sergey Semyonov, director of Russia's Global Climate Change and Ecology Institute.

Experts have been examining the gravesites, and while they didn’t find the virus itself, they found fragments of its DNA.

No one is supposed to go near the sites where anthrax and smallpox victims are, but the harsh climate has swept away wooden fences that served to keep out livestock and people.

There are currently 24 people in the hospital after contracting potentially fatal anthrax from unfrozen reindeer or human burial sites, according to the article. Scientists say this should serve as a warning of the real risk of return of smallpox.

“The rock and soil that forms the Yamal Peninsula contains much ice,” said Kershengolts. “Thawing may loosen the soil rather quickly, so the probability is high that old cattle graves may come to surface.”

“Some graves dug in the past may be just three meters deep, covered by a very thin layer of soil,” he said. “The spores of the disease are now on the loose.”

Since the epidemic was eradicated, people have stopped receiving vaccines for the disease. Scientists are now saying there is the possibility of a new transition from humans to animals.

“This probability is non-zero,” said Serget Netesov, professor at Novosibirsk State University and part-time chief scientist at the Vector. “Once it has happened in history, it may happen again.”

Climate change is bad enough, but now there is potential of a deadly disease outbreak because of it. In addition to an epidemic outbreak, there are concerns that the Siberian permafrost could release methane gas, which could dramatically increase the rate of global warming. The effects of Siberia’s melting permafrost can be devastating, not only for the environment, but also the health of the public.


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