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Anthrax Drug User Death Caused by Suspected Heroin Contamination

An injecting drug user in England who died in the hospital had a confirmed case of anthrax in a growing instance of the condition from contaminated drugs, the Health Protection Agency said today.

The fatality in Blackpool, northwest England follows the identification of seven anthrax cases since June in Scotland, Germany, Denmark and France, with the source presumed to be contaminated heroin, said the HPA in an e-mailed statement. There was a similar fatality in Blackpool from anthrax through drug injection in February 2010.

Drug injectors, who are vulnerable to a range of infectious diseases, may become infected with the anthrax bacteria when heroin is contaminated with anthrax spores causing an infection, according to the HPA. The condition can be cured if treatment starts at an early stage and is rarely passed from human to human.

“Anthrax can be cured with antibiotics, if treatment is started early,” said Dilys Morgan, a doctor specialized in infectious diseases at the HPA. “It is therefore important for medical professionals to know the signs and symptoms to look for, so that there are no delays in providing the necessary treatment.”

Redness and swelling occur at the point of injection among drug users who have anthrax, while fever and flu-like symptoms develop if the drug is smoked, the HPA said.

An outbreak of anthrax among heroin users in Scotland was reported in 2009 and 2010, infecting 47 people, 14 of whom died. Before 2009, only one case of drug-related anthrax was found -- in Norway in 2000, the London-based agency said.

Anthrax bacteria, known as Bacillus anthracis, occurs most commonly in cattle, sheep and goats and can produce poisons lethal to humans.

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