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Worries mount over bison anthrax outbreak in Northwest Territories

CBC NewsEye on the Arctic

An anthrax outbreak among bison in Canada's Northwest Territories has some people downstream worried about possible threats to their health from the carcasses.

About 230 bison have died so far this summer near Fort Providence from anthrax bacteria which naturally occur in the area's soil.

Stan Sanguez, chief of Jean Marie River, is worried the deadly anthrax will spread. He's concerned bison carcasses may have fallen in the river and floated downstream, and that other wildlife may be infected.

"Say eagles and the crows are picking on the carcasses, does that mean that they all die — suddenly they fly off into the bush and they die somewhere else in the bush and it's like a chain reaction?" he asked.

Sanguez said people from the community are going out on boats checking for dead bison along the shoreline of the Mackenzie River.

Dr. David Patrick, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of British Columbia, said when it comes to water there should be no concern.

"We don't seem to get waterborne anthrax," he said. "The main concern is direct contact with the carcasses of the bison, because once the animal has been gone for a little while the replicating bacteria can form spores which are the infectious ones for humans."

Patrick said it's rare for humans to contract anthrax from bison. Rare cases may stem from handling infected hides or eating infected meat that isn't cooked thoroughly enough.

He said it's possible for the disease to transfer to other wildlife but any animal infected dies soon after so he says the chance of harvesting a sick animal is slim.

Sanguez said he still wants to hear from the N.W.T. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

"They need to come to our community to assure our communities that it's still safe," he said.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media