Page last updated at 15:14 GMT, Friday, 5 February 2010

Anthrax found in London heroin user

Close up microscopic picture of the Anthrax virus
Anthrax occurs mostly in animals such as cattle, sheep and goats

A heroin user in London has tested positive for anthrax, the Health Protection Agency (HPA) has announced.

The case is the first in England linked to the Class A drug, but follows the deaths of nine users in Scotland from anthrax infection.

The HPA said the unnamed user was being treated in a London hospital and that other drug users in the capital should be "extremely alert to the risks".

It urged them "to cease taking heroin by any route, if at all possible".

Anthrax is a deadly bacterial infection which occurs mostly in hoofed animals such as cattle, sheep and goats, in Asia and Africa.

It normally infects humans when they inhale or ingest anthrax spores, but it is extremely rare for it to be passed from person to person.

'Seek help'

The outbreak in Scotland began in Glasgow in December, and has since then affected 19 users - killing nine - across the country.

It must be assumed that all heroin in London carries the risk of anthrax contamination
Dr Brian McCloskey
Health Protection Agency

In a statement the HPA and NHS London said investigations were being carried out to confirm whether the heroin - or a contaminated cutting agent mixed with it - was the source of the latest infection.

Dr Brian McCloskey, of the HPA, said: "While public health investigations are ongoing, it must be assumed that all heroin in London carries the risk of anthrax contamination.

"Heroin users are advised to cease taking heroin by any route, if at all possible, and to seek help from their local drug treatment services."

He stressed the risk to the general population - and even close relatives of the person affected - was "negligible".

Prof Lindsey Davies, from NHS London, warned users to look for any tell-tale symptoms, such as excessive swelling near the injection site or breathing difficulties, adding that prompt treatment was "crucial".

Meanwhile, tests show that the strain of anthrax involved in the Scottish outbreak is "indistinguishable" from that found in a heroin user who died in Germany in December.

Health Protection Scotland said this could mean that the contamination seen in both countries had come from a single source.

"This could suggest that the contamination of the heroin may have occurred prior to distribution of the heroin in Scotland and Germany, however it does not offer definitive proof," the body added.

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