Matabeleland North provincial medical director, Dr Gibson Mhlanga, confirmed the deaths of two people from anthrax, but a report in the official The Chronicle newspaper said six had died and over 200 cattle had been wiped out in the province's Dongamuzi area near Lupane, 120km north of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city.
The government dispatched its disaster management Civil Protection Unit (CPU) to Lupane last week to work with the Veterinary Services Department to vaccinate affected cattle in a bid to contain the disease.
Anthrax will further strain Zimbabwe's crumbling health delivery system, which has failed to contain a cholera outbreak that has spread to all 10 of its provinces. The waterborne disease has officially killed 294 people out of a total of 6,072 cases.
Medical officials in Lupane said the people who had succumbed to anthrax over the past week had eaten meat from infected cattle; several other villagers in the district have been hospitalised.
Villagers in the Lupane area who spoke to IRIN said they had lost a considerable number of livestock to the rapid onset infection, which is hard to detect in its early stages.
"My entire kraal was almost wiped out and the few cattle that I have remaining have been vaccinated [but] I am not sure whether the seven remaining cattle I have left will not die also," said Matthew Ncube, 57, who had already lost 35 of his animals.
Ephraim Moyo pointed out that the risk of human infection was rising with the approach of the festive season. "People eat a lot of meat, and the problem is that people in the village do not throw away cattle that die ... they eat the meat."
On its way
Anthrax infection usually results from coming into contact with the spores of the bacterium, infecting the skin, or inhaling them, or by eating infected meat; it does not spread from person to person.
The outbreak is causing serious concern in Bulawayo, where most people buy their meat from unlicensed butcheries that source the animals from rural areas like Lupane.
"Ever since the outbreak of anthrax I have not been buying meat from the vendors I normally buy from, as the meat that they bring from rural areas is not inspected," said Bulawayo resident Ndabezinhle Sibanda.
Symptoms of intestinal anthrax include severe abdominal pain, vomiting, severe diarrhoea, and bleeding from the digestive tract. Pulmonary anthrax, the most dangerous form of the disease, can rapidly turn into severe pneumonia. If anthrax is caught early, it is almost always successfully treated with antibiotics.