Could an 1890s Smallpox Outbreak Come Back to Haunt Us?

Researchers fear melting permafrost will revive the virus
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 17, 2016 3:05 PM CDT
Russian scientists extract air samples from frozen soil in Siberia in 2010.   (AP Photo/Arthur Max)
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(Newser) – A video of scientists in hazmat suits incinerating animal carcasses in Siberia looks straight out of a sci-fi movie about a rogue virus, notes Vice News. The scariest part? Such a sight might become more familiar. The video arose because melting permafrost caused a long-frozen reindeer carcass to thaw and release anthrax bacteria. Now scientists are worried that more dangers lurk in the permafrost, including smallpox, which killed up to 30% of those infected before it was eradicated around the world in 1977, per the Independent. A researcher tells the Siberian Times that up to 40% of residents of a Siberian town died in a 1890s smallpox epidemic and "were buried under the upper layer of permafrost, on the bank of the Kolmya River." Now "Kolmya's floodwaters have started eroding the banks."

Experts say they've already found bodies with smallpox-like sores along with fragments of the virus' DNA. Boris Kershengolts of the Institute for Biological Problems of Cryolithozone says there's "reason enough to finance research into the diagnostics and prevention of exceptionally dangerous infections," adding that the graves of anthrax-infected cattle can also be found across Russia, including in areas where the ground has thawed two feet deeper than normal. Deadly diseases aren't the only concern. An American Geophysical Union report says rising temperatures will "guarantee" the release of "physical, chemical, biological, and radiological wastes" at an abandoned US nuclear missile project base under the Greenland ice sheet. (This virus awoke in Siberia after 30,000 years.)

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