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Prehistoric diseases might be returning

As the permafrost melts, ancient viruses and bacteria which have been dormant for ages are being released from icy prisons

Humans and disease have been doing the tango throughout history. We have evolved to resist pathogens and they, in turn, have evolved to find new ways to infect us.

Melting permafrost
Permafrost melting might have consequences other than the obvious impact on climate

Then about a century ago, Alexander Fleming happened. He is, of course, the man who discovered penicillin. Thanks to him we’ve had antibiotics to fight off those pesky bacteria. But bacteria are evolving to resist antibiotics too. It’s an endless loop, a back-and-forth that maintains an equilibrium of sorts.

But the balance might tip in the favour of bacteria and viruses soon.

Permafrost is a great place for bacteria and viruses to chill (see what we did there?) for long periods of time. They can theoretically stay alive (and dormant) in permafrost for centuries, even millions of years perhaps. It has all the ideal conditions required for them to do so; it’s dark, it’s cold, and there’s no oxygen.

But as the Earth keeps warming up and the permafrost soil continues to melt, ancient dormant viruses could become active.

Infected corpses can be a bio-hazard for centuries

For example, in August 2016, a summer heat wave in Siberia caused an almost century old reindeer corpse infected with anthrax to thaw. This, in turn, infected a 12-year old boy who died and also caused an anthrax outbreak which killed over 2,000 reindeer and led to a few more cases of human deaths as well. There hadn’t been an anthrax outbreak in the region since 1941.

That’s what anthrax looks like under an electron microscope

Researchers fear that as more permafrost melts, such occurrences are likely to happen more often. There are a lot of corpses in permafrost, both human and animal, frozen away with deadly viruses for centuries. Some of which have caused global epidemics in the past. We might not be ready for them, especially when we may not have been in contact with them for centuries (no immunity, you see?). It could potentially be another epidemic waiting to happen.

Source: BBC

Manish Rajesh

Manish Rajesh