Anthrax outbreak hits Bangladesh leather and meat sectors

By James Melik and Anbarasan Ethirajan
Reporters, Business Daily, BBC World Service

image captionAnthrax can infect any animal that eats grass growing in contaminated soil

A strain of bacteria that became famous after it was used as a bio-terrorism weapon is causing immense damage to Bangladesh's export-oriented leather industry.

Health officials here are battling to contain an outbreak of anthrax, which commonly infects livestock here, so farmers are suffering too.

Anthrax exists naturally in the soil in some parts of Bangladesh. Livestock get ill after eating contaminated grass, especially during or after the monsoon when water brings it to the surface.

Some north-western areas have repeated anthrax outbreaks.

The latest outbreak, which is hurting the leather industry that depends on raw hides from slaughtered cattle, is thought to have been caused by people slaughtering anthrax-infected cattle and selling or eating the contaminated meat.

Scores of anthrax-infected cattle have died in the last few weeks.

The outbreak was first detected in the central district of Sirajganj in August and has now spread to 12 districts.

It has infected about 600 people so far. Officials say all of them have been infected with cutaneous, or skin anthrax, which causes wound-like lesions.

Health officials say cutaneous anthrax is not life-threatening if detected early and there is treatment available.

Lost business

No humans have died so far, but the anthrax outbreak has caused panic.

As a result, demand for beef and mutton has dropped significantly after consumers stopped buying red meat, with sales down nearly 90% in the past month.

The sharp fall in the number of cattle slaughtered in various slaughtering houses has drastically limited the supply of hides to the tanneries.

There has been a sharp increase in the prices of hides and many tanneries are running out of material.

"We are using hides from our old stock," says Abu Taher, who runs a tannery in Hazaribag, a suburb of the capital Dhaka.

"But how long we can continue to use it? Those who are raising cows, those who are selling beef and also those who are slaughtering, they are all losing jobs."

Bangladeshi firms make both finished leather and leather products.

Leather handbags, boots, jackets, belts and ornamental goods are exported to the USA, Italy, Germany, Japan, Korea and China.

Bangladeshi companies earned $460m (£290m) in leather and leather goods exports last year.

And this year was supposed to be even more lucrative, as the industry was just beginning to recover from the global recession.

Instead, the anthrax outbreak has hit them hard.

"Due to the anthrax crisis, we lost more than $100m in our export target in the last one-month period," says Muhammad Hai, general secretary of the Bangladesh Tanners Association.

"If this situation continues in this way, it will be difficult for us to continue with the leather business. I am afraid most of the tanneries will be closed."

Time running out

Exporters say they are not taking any new orders from their buyers abroad as they afraid that they will not be able to supply in time.

There are more than 200 tanneries in Bangladesh employing 70,000 people, but millions of others, such as farmers, dairy owners and traders, are directly and indirectly dependent on the cattle industry.

However, officials are confident that they can manage through the present anthrax outbreak.

image captionThe leather industry could permanently lose orders from other countries if the crisis continues

"I think it is well contained, it is under control," says Sharful Alam, secretary of the Department of Livestock and Fisheries.

"Things will improve further with the decision to vaccinate all the cattle in the infected areas.

"By the middle of October the total vaccination will be completed in infected districts, so the concern of the tanneries should go."

It is estimated that almost 40% of the country's annual hide procurement will be done during the Muslim religious festival of Eid-ul-Adha, when millions of cattle will be slaughtered as part of the festival.

The festival is less than two months away, so tannery owners and exporters are anxious.

At the moment, they can only hope the anthrax outbreak will subside gradually.

Otherwise it could spell disaster for a Bangladeshi industry worth some $500m to the impoverished country.

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