The world’s largest outbreak of human anthrax occurred in rural Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) from 1978-80 when 10,738 cases were recorded and 182 people died.
The outbreak occurred in the latter phase of the Southern Rhodesian independence war that many had already concluded the white minority was losing. It was speculated at the time that the anthrax spores were spread through contaminated meat. Cattle deaths were not recorded.
In 1996 during a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing in South Africa, scientists testified that the apartheid regime had employed urban methods. The scientists admitted they had planted anthrax spores in the gum of envelopes, in cigarettes and chocolates.
Anthrax spores were also planted in Lusaka, Zambia, in the food of three Russian advisors to South Africa’s now ruling African National Congress (ANC). One of them died. Anthrax was not common in Zimbabwe before 1978. In the 29 years prior to the outbreak, only 334 human cases had been recorded in the country compared to 459 in the United States in the same period. At that time, about 7,000 cases were recorded worldwide annually.
These figures were contained in an article published in Physicians for Social Change (PSR), a quarterly journal of Medicine and Survival Inc., in December 1992 by Dr Meryl Nass, then of the Wing Memorial Hospital and University of Massachusetts in the United States of America. Dr Nass’s article, based on official Southern Rhodesian statistics, was entitled “Anthrax Epizootic in Zimbabwe, 1978-80: Due to Deliberate Spread?”
Her deliberately pointed question was ignored by official American agencies because she was a known member of the anti-war movement and because U.S. attention at the time was focused elsewhere.
However, her observations were taken up on 7 July 1993 in a lecture at the University of Zimbabwe entitled: “The use of Poison and Biological Weapons in the [Southern] Rhodesian War”. The lecture also dealt with the deliberate spread of cholera and other forms of bio-terrorism.
Five years later in July 1998, the BBC programme, “Panorama”, devoted eight minutes to the spread of anthrax and cholera in Zimbabwe in a program called “Plague Wars: The Secret Killings”. The first segment had ironically been called: “Plague Wars: Apocalypse Delayed”.
The Southern Rhodesian anthrax outbreak occurred over a two-year period and was limited in its geographical scope. It affected 17 percent of the country, often in areas where anthrax had not previously been recorded.
The anthrax outbreak was confined to Southern Rhodesia’s Tribal Trust Lands (now known as Communal Lands) where most Africans still live. In the white commercial farmlands there were only four small outbreaks and 11 cattle deaths. No human cases were recorded. Nor were any cases reported beyond the country’s borders or in tourist centres such as Victoria Falls.
In the November 1981 issue of the British journal, Nature, five scientists based at the Chemical Defense Establishment at Porton Down admitted that continued anthrax contamination on Gruinard Island off Scotland made human habitation there hazardous.
During the Second World War that the British government conducted anthrax tests on Gruinard, leaving the island off-limits to humans for 45 years after the experiments until formaldehyde treatment was used to decontaminate the soil.
Thirteen years after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, a former senior white member of the Southern Rhodesian Security Forces admitted: “It is true that anthrax was used in an experimental role … and the anthrax idea came from Army Psyops (Psychological Operations)”.
“The use of anthrax spores to kill off the cattle of tribesmen assisting the guerrillas was carried out in conjunction with psychological suggestions to the tribes-people that their cattle were sick and dying because of disease introduced into Zimbabwe from Mozambique by the infiltrating guerrillas”. Five years later, Col Lionel Dyke, who commanded the Rhodesian African Rifles (RAR) during the Southern Rhodesian war, admitted that anthrax had been used in the south of the country.
But he stressed that Southern Rhodesians had no capacity to produce anthrax and cholera. Instead, he insisted, his country had been used as a “laboratory” by the South African intelligence services.
The Surgeon General of the South African Defense Force (SADF) from 1988 to 1997, Lieutenant-General Niels Knobel, who had authority over biological weapons, said his country had received “tacit under-the-counter help from Britain and the United States” in obtaining anthrax and cholera. Zimbabwe’s British-born Minister of Health, Dr Timothy Stamps, was even more explicit. In the Panorama program, he said that he was almost certain that the anthrax sporess had been developed at Porton Down. The use of anthrax, he said, was the “highest form of murder”. Porton Down officials denied that they had collaborated with either the Southern Rhodesian or South African authorities. But Knobel said they had acquired the spores through “unofficial” contacts.
Just how the anthrax was introduced to Africans in Southern Rhodesia has never been investigated. Possibly it was gastrointestinal anthrax caused by eating the contaminated meat of dead stock. A high mortality rate can then follow this form of anthrax. Cutaneous anthrax that occurs mainly among certain occupational groups such as wool-handlers and tanners, seems improbable in the Zimbabwean case. Inhalation anthrax, however, is more possible – and lethal.
The university paper focused on the use of anthrax, cholera and poison by the Southern Rhodesian government of Ian Smith and its armed forces. It extensively quoted the case notes of another American doctor, Paul Epstein, dated 12 May 1978 when he was working at the hospital in Beira in Mozambique.
“On 23 April 1978 the nightmare began,” Epstein wrote. “Five Zimbabwean refugees arrived in the emergency room, bleeding from the noses. One died in the emergency room, another died on his way to the ward. The next morning a third young man was in shock.
“By the end of two weeks, 15 men had died in front of us from excessive bleeding, out of 35 who were admitted and approximately 200 who had suffered from the mysterious haemorrhages.”
After exhausting a lengthy checklist, Epstein and his team concluded: “Deliberate poisoning by agents of the Ian Smith regime became a real possibility”. Finally, a sample was sent to the World Health Organization for analysis. They found a fatal quantity of Sodium Coumadin, an anti-coagulant used to poison rats.The unnamed Southern Rhodesian Security Force member and Dyke also admitted that cholera had been extensively used on slow moving streams and stagnant water outside the country. Cholera infection, it was originally thought, did not disperse quickly in water. This view has now been proven to be incorrect. “The deliberate use of cholera as a weapon of war may throw new light on the persistent outbreaks of the disease in several southern African countries in the 1980s and early 1990s,” the Mozambique news agency (AIM) observed.
In 1992, there were 30,000 recorded cholera cases in Angola, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe that resulted in 1,400 deaths. These countries harbored Zimbabwe guerrilla bases prior to independence in 1980. (SARDC)
David Martin is the former Africa Correspondent of the London Sunday newspaper, The Observer, now resident in Zimbabwe where he has lived and worked since 1980, as a publisher and writer. He has written extensively about the 14 member countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
- Beaver Shaw
- Nairobi, Kenya
- I an ex member of both 7 and 8 Squadron's of the Rhodesian war spending most of my operational time on Seven Squadron as a K Car gunner. I was credited for shooting down a fixed wing aircraft from a K Car on the 9 August 1979. This blog is from articles for research on a book which I HAVE HANDED THIS MANUSCRIPT OVER TO MIMI CAWOOD WHO WILL BE HANDLING THE PUBLICATION OF THE BOOK OF WHICH THERE WILL BE VERY LIMITED COPIES AVAILABLE Contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org The latest news is that the Editing is now done and we can expect to start sales and deliveries by the end of April 2011
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