The anthrax epidemic among black Zimbabweans in 1979 -80 which affected more than 10 000 people could have been part of Ian Smith’s biological warfare to fight the increasing insurgence by Zimbabwe’s freedom fighters, Dr Meryl Nass, an American expert who carried out a three-year study into the case has concluded.
Her findings were presented at an international conference on infectious diseases in Nairobi in June this year.
She said since the present government inherited the know-how of these biological weapons there was a danger it could use it too. Zimbabwe has not yet ratified or signed the Biological Weapons Treaty which came into effect in 1975.
“If they were used once in Zimbabwe, they can be used again especially because it has this history,” Nass said.
Nass, who passed through Harare on her way to Nairobi to talk with government officials about her findings and to suggest current soil investigations for anthrax spores, said her visit was met with hushed warnings that the issue was very sensitive because the government still employed former Rhodesian military agents.
She only met briefly with officials form the Ministry of Home Affairs but was unable to interest other ministries.
Anthrax, a disease usually confined to animals, became the highest cause of illness among black Zimbabweans in 1979 -80, coinciding with the final stretch of the liberation war.
In the 29 years prior to the epidemic, only 315 cases of anthrax in humans were recorded with the highest figure of 65 being in 1965, the year of Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI).
In 1979 the number of cases suddenly shot up to 4 002 from a mere two the previous year. It further escalated to 6 736 in 1980 declining to 1 575 the following year, 1 229 in 1982, and down to 295 in 1983 and 1984 — the latest figures available.
Nass said the epidemic, the largest recorded to date in the world, caused 182 known deaths. Historically, the number of anthrax cases in humans was very low in Zimbabwe. The geographical scope of the epidemic was unusual and none of the neighbouring countries reported increased anthrax activity during the same period. Moreover, the epidemic was confined to communal farming areas.
She said the epidemic severely disrupted the lives and economy of the black population in communal farming areas killing one-third of the cattle population. She also pointed out that ways of delivering viable anthrax spores included exploding bombs, or the release of infected powder, pellets or cattle cakes by plane as well as other methods. Any of these could have been used by the Rhodesian forces.