France is the largest anthrax outbreak in 20 years

More than 50 cows, sheep and horses have died in recent months during the worst anthrax eruptions that have occurred in French farms over the last 20 years, according to the authorities, who warn of a shortage of vaccines.

Transferred by traces that can remain inactive in the soil for decades, this disease, also called anthrax, can be transmitted to humans and can be fatal in the most extreme cases.

The first cases were discovered in the town of Montgardin, in the Hautes-Alpes (South-East France) department, where six cows were found dead in June.

In two months the disease spread to 13 other locations, where the health authorities were responsible for 23 different outbreaks.

The vaccine is the best method to limit the spread of this infection. But veterinarians are faced with a shortage of vaccines, because the Spanish laboratory that closes them in the month of August closes for summer vacations.

"The State has entered into discussions with its European partners on the availability and purchase of vaccines" from other countries, said Agnès Chavanon, general secretary of the Hautes-Alpes prefecture.

Caused by the bacterium "Bacillus anthracis", this disease causes a fulminating death in animals, often in less than 24 hours. The animal displays, in addition to other symptoms, inflammation of the abdomen and bleeding through its natural openings.

The cases of transmission to people are "extremely unusual", said Christine Ortmans of the regional health service (ARS).

No case of human infection has been reported during the current outbreak, he added.

The most common form of infection in humans, anthrax of the skin, is rarely fatal if it is treated with antibiotics.

This bacterium produces a powerful toxin that has been used as a biological weapon.

The most notorious cases of anthrax attacks, sent by mail, took place in the United States in 2001, a week after the 11 September attacks.

A biological weapons specialist committed suicide after being accused of the attacks in which five people were killed.

Serge Cavalli, a senior official in the Hautes-Alpes region, said that all animals were vaccinated on the affected farms in the region.

In addition, measures have been taken to block production at the affected farms for at least 21 days.

This disease is unusual, but not exceptional. Since 1999, 100 outbreaks have been registered in France, especially during the hot summers following periods of heavy rain.

In 2008, 23 outbreaks were registered across the country. The last recorded case in the High Alps goes back to 1992.

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