The world’s largest outbreak of human anthrax
occurred in rural Southern Rhodesia (now
Zimbabwe) from 1978-80 when 10,738 cases were
recorded and 182 people died.
The outbreak occurred in the latter phase of the
Southern Rhodesian independence war that many
had already concluded the white minority was
losing. It was speculated at the time that the anthrax
spores were spread through contaminated meat.
Cattle deaths were not recorded.
In 1996 during a Truth and Reconciliation
Commission hearing in South Africa, scientists
testified that the apartheid regime had employed
urban methods. The scientists admitted they had
planted anthrax spores in the gum of envelopes, in
cigarettes and chocolates.
Anthrax spores were also planted in Lusaka,
Zambia, in the food of three Russian advisors to
South Africa’s now ruling African National
Congress (ANC). One of them died.
Anthrax was not common in Zimbabwe before
1978. In the 29 years prior to the outbreak, only
334 human cases had been recorded in the country
compared to 459 in the United States in the same
period. At that time, about 7,000 cases were
recorded worldwide annually.
These figures were contained in an article published
in Physicians for Social Change (PSR), a
quarterly journal of Medicine and Survival Inc.,
in December 1992 by Dr Meryl Nass, then of the
Wing Memorial Hospital and University of
Massachusetts in the United States of America.
Dr Nass’s article, based on official Southern
Rhodesian statistics, was entitled “Anthrax
Epizootic in Zimbabwe, 1978-80: Due to Deliberate
Her deliberately pointed question was ignored by
official American agencies because she was a
known member of the anti-war movement and
because U.S. attention at the time was focused
However, her observations were taken up on 7 July
1993 in a lecture at the University of Zimbabwe
entitled: “The use of Poison and Biological Weapons
in the [Southern] Rhodesian War”. The lecture also
dealt with the deliberate spread of cholera and other
forms of bio-terrorism.
Five years later in July 1998, the BBC programme,
“Panorama”, devoted eight minutes to the spread
of anthrax and cholera in Zimbabwe in a program
called “Plague Wars: The Secret Killings”. The first
segment had ironically been called: “Plague Wars:
The Southern Rhodesian anthrax outbreak occurred
over a two-year period and was limited in its
geographical scope. It affected 17 percent of the
country, often in areas where anthrax had not
previously been recorded.
The anthrax outbreak was confined to Southern
Rhodesia’s Tribal Trust Lands (now known as
Communal Lands) where most Africans still live.
In the white commercial farmlands there were only
four small outbreaks and 11 cattle deaths. No
human cases were recorded. Nor were any cases
reported beyond the country’s borders or in tourist
centres such as Victoria Falls.
In the November 1981 issue of the British journal,
Nature, five scientists based at the Chemical
Defense Establishment at Porton Down admitted
that continued anthrax contamination on Gruinard
Island off Scotland made human habitation there
During the Second World War that the British
government conducted anthrax tests on Gruinard,
leaving the island off-limits to humans for 45 years
after the experiments until formaldehyde treatment
was used to decontaminate the soil.
Thirteen years after Zimbabwe’s independence in
1980, a former senior white member of the Southern
Rhodesian Security Forces admitted: “It is true that
anthrax was used in an experimental role … and
the anthrax idea came from Army Psyops
“The use of anthrax spores to kill off the cattle of
tribesmen assisting the guerrillas was carried out in
conjunction with psychological suggestions to the
tribes-people that their cattle were sick and dying
because of disease introduced into Zimbabwe from
Mozambique by the infiltrating guerrillas”.
Five years later, Col Lionel Dyke, who commanded
the Rhodesian African Rifles (RAR) during the
Southern Rhodesian war, admitted that anthrax had
been used in the south of the country.
But he stressed that Southern Rhodesians had no
capacity to produce anthrax and cholera. Instead,
he insisted, his country had been used as a
“laboratory” by the South African intelligence
The Surgeon General of the South African Defense
Force (SADF) from 1988 to 1997, Lieutenant-General
Niels Knobel, who had authority over
biological weapons, said his country had received
“tacit under-the-counter help from Britain and the
United States” in obtaining anthrax and cholera.
Zimbabwe’s British-born Minister of Health, Dr
Timothy Stamps, was even more explicit. In the
Panorama program, he said that he was almost
certain that the anthrax sporess had been developed
at Porton Down. The use of anthrax, he said, was
the “highest form of murder”. Porton Down officials
denied that they had collaborated with either the
Southern Rhodesian or South African authorities.
But Knobel said they had acquired the spores
through “unofficial” contacts.
Just how the anthrax was introduced to Africans in
Southern Rhodesia has never been investigated.
Possibly it was gastrointestinal anthrax caused by
eating the contaminated meat of dead stock. A high
mortality rate can then follow this form of anthrax.
Cutaneous anthrax that occurs mainly among
certain occupational groups such as wool-handlers
and tanners, seems improbable in the Zimbabwean
case. Inhalation anthrax, however, is more possible
– and lethal.
The university paper focused on the use of anthrax,
cholera and poison by the Southern Rhodesian
government of Ian Smith and its armed forces. It
extensively quoted the case notes of another
American doctor, Paul Epstein, dated 12 May 1978
when he was working at the hospital in Beira in
“On 23 April 1978 the nightmare began,” Epstein
wrote. “Five Zimbabwean refugees arrived in the
emergency room, bleeding from the noses. One died
in the emergency room, another died on his way to
the ward. The next morning a third young man was
“By the end of two weeks, 15 men had died in front
of us from excessive bleeding, out of 35 who were
admitted and approximately 200 who had suffered
from the mysterious haemorrhages.”
After exhausting a lengthy checklist, Epstein and
his team concluded: “Deliberate poisoning by agents
of the Ian Smith regime became a real possibility”.
Finally, a sample was sent to the World Health
Organization for analysis. They found a fatal
quantity of Sodium Coumadin, an anti-coagulant used
to poison rats.The unnamed Southern Rhodesian
Security Force member and Dyke also admitted that
cholera had been extensively used on slow moving
streams and stagnant water outside the country.
Cholera infection, it was originally thought, did not
disperse quickly in water. This view has now been
proven to be incorrect. “The deliberate use of
cholera as a weapon of war may throw new light
on the persistent outbreaks of the disease in several
southern African countries in the 1980s and early
1990s,” the Mozambique news agency (AIM)
In 1992, there were 30,000 recorded cholera cases
in Angola, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe
that resulted in 1,400 deaths. These countries
harbored Zimbabwe guerrilla bases prior to
independence in 1980. (SARDC)
David Martin is the former Africa Correspondent
of the London Sunday newspaper, The Observer,
now resident in Zimbabwe where he has
lived and worked since 1980, as a publisher
and writer. He has written extensively about the
14 member countries of the Southern African
Development Community (SADC).