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Deadly diseases hidden in ice sparks fresh epidemic fears as frozen water melts

Scientists are worried that deadly bacteria and viruses that humans have long been free of could make a comeback.

For years, harrowing afflictions such as the bubonic plague and smallpox have been largely absent from our world.

It's a combination of improved medicine, better hygiene and living standards, and evolution that have meant the global population is better equipped to fight off bacterial infections and virsuses.

Engraving, possibly 19th century, showing the 'Dead Cart' collecting bodies of plague victims
Plagues are not very nice
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Thanks to Alexander Fleming and his penicillin discovery, we've had antibiotics for more than a century. And while bacteria have responded by evolving to resist medicines – the battle never really ends – we're definitely in a better position than our medieval ancestors.

But now, it appears that humans could be faced with deathly bacteria and viruses that were previously consigned to history. Climate change is melting permafrost soils that have been frozen for thousands of years, exposing things we modern humans have never faced before.

Some bacteria and viruses have been sealed in time for thousands of years, lying dormant. But they're springing back to life.

How do we fight diseases of the past that we know nothing about?

Anthrax is not on anyone's Christmas list
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One example is a 12-year-old boy from the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic Circle. In August 2016, deep in a corner of the Siberian tundra, the boy died and at least 20 others were made seriously ill after being infected with anthrax, the BBC reports .

The theory is that more than 75 years ago, a reindeer infected with anthrax died, and its frozen carcass was trapped under a layer of frozen soil.

In a heatwave in the summer of 2016, the ice thawed, exposing the animal – and unleashing the deadly anthrax. There are thought to be millions of other frozen reindeer that could be infected.

The fear among scientists is that this won't be an isolated case. The Earth is warming, and more permafrost will melt away.

What lies beneath?

Bacteria kills people
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In Alaska's tundra, researchers have discovered intact a Spanish flu virus from 1918. It's locked away in corpses that were buried in mass graves.

The temperature in the Arctic Circle is rising quickly – approximately three times faster than in the rest of the world. Infections are waiting to be released.

"Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark," says evolutionary biologist Jean-Michel Claverie at Aix-Marseille University in France.

"Pathogenic viruses that can infect humans or animals might be preserved in old permafrost layers, including some that have caused global epidemics in the past."

Siberia Reindeers In Forest Yakutia
Siberia is cold, but is warming up
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Some of the scariest diseases, such as the bubonic plague – better known as the Black Death – and smallpox, are also likely frozen in time.

Scientists believe they could be in Siberia. One town lost nearly 40 per cent of its population to the plague in the 1890s. Many dead bodies were frozen in land near a river – the sandbanks of which are now eroding away, as the earth there warms.

In a 2011 study, Boris Revich and Marina Podolnaya wrote: "As a consequence of permafrost melting, the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th centuries may come back, especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried."

In 2016, a boy, ten, contracted the plague while skinning a marmot in Siberia.

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