US health officials have confirmed samples from a pair of African drums used in a drumming circle attended by a New Hampshire woman who is severely ill in hospital with gastrointestinal anthrax have tested positive for the deadly bacterium.

The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) confirmed on Monday that test samples from two African drums stored at a building belonging to the the United Campus Ministry to the University of New Hampshire in downtown Durham have come back positive for anthrax, but stressed they have not been confirmed as the source of the infection and additional tests are still going on.

The DHHS said that over the weekend, members of the the New Hampshire National Guard, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, and the US Environmental Protection Agency collected environmental samples from the United Campus Ministry building and African drums stored there: the infected woman, who is from Strafford County, took part in a drumming circle held in that building.

The samples are being tested at the New Hampshire Public Health Labs in Concord.

The United Campus Ministry is an ecumenical ministry formed of various denominational Christian bodies that provides spiritual leadership and services on college and university campuses across the US and beyond.

The authorities said they are continuing to investigate the source of the anthrax that infected the woman, and that the drums are only one possible source. In the meantime the building has been closed under an order from DHHS Commissioner Nicholas Toumpas until further notice.

In an earlier media communication on Sunday Toumpas said:

“Our thoughts and concerns are with this patient and her family.”

“This is a difficult and unusual situation, and we are committing all possible resources to determining the cause of this exposure as quickly as possible.”

Public Health Director Dr. José Montero told the media that:

“Gastrointestinal anthrax is very unusual.”

“We have not yet been able to confirm that the drums are the cause of the patient’s illness and we are continuing to follow up many leads. Anthrax is not an illness that you can catch from someone else.”

Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by the spore-forming bacterium Bacillus anthracis.

It is rare for humans to become infected with anthrax, as it most commonly occurs in wild and domestic animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, camels, antelopes, and other plant-eaters. Anthrax occurs naturally all over the world, but is more common in countries without veterinary public health programs.

Humans can’t catch anthrax from an infected human: they catch it from being exposed to infected live animals or dead tissue from animals, including hides, meat, and fur (African drums are usually made from hollowed out logs and stretched cow skin).

Although it is very rare for people to become infected naturally by anthrax, public concern has been heightened in recent years because the bacterium has been been weaponized, as in October 2001, when mail containing spores of the bacterium was sent to US senator Tom Daschle, media offices, and others, killing five people and infecting 17 more. There are also concerns about its wider potential use in biological warfare.

There are three types of anthrax infection: cutaneous (skin), inhalation, and gastrointestinal. Symptoms vary depending on how it is contracted, but they usual appear within 7 days.

The intestinal form, which is what the woman at the centre of this case has been diagnosed with, starts with nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting, and fever, followed by abdominal pain, vomiting of blood and severe diarrhea.

Mortality rates vary from 20 per cent of untreated skin cases, around 50 per cent for the gastrointestinal form, to fatal if it is breathed in.

The New Hampshire DHHS said that even though it is a remote possibility for transmission, because of the possible link to the African drums, they are asking:

“Anyone who brought their own drum to one of the events held at the United Campus Ministry between October 1st and early December 2009 to call DPHS at 271-4496 to discuss the possibility of having their drum tested.”

Source: New Hampshire DHSS, Merck online medical library.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD