What is brucellosis?
Brucellosis is an infectious disease caused by the bacteria of the genus Brucella. These bacteria are primarily passed among animals, and they cause disease in many different vertebrates. Various Brucella species affect sheep, goats, cattle, deer, elk, bison, pigs, dogs, and several other animals. Humans become infected by coming in contact with animals or animal products that are contaminated with these bacteria. In humans brucellosis can cause a range of symptoms that are similar to the flu and may include fever, sweats, headaches, back pains, and physical weakness. Severe infections of the central nervous system or lining of the heart may occur. Brucellosis can also cause long-lasting or chronic symptoms that include recurrent fevers, joint pain, and fatigue.
How common is brucellosis?
Brucellosis in humans is not very common in the United States, where 100 to 200 cases occur each year. But brucellosis can be very common in countries where animal disease control programs have not reduced the amount of disease among animals. Brucellosis in humans in Wyoming is uncommon, with usually no more than 1 to 2 cases reported per year and many years with no reported cases. Many of these reported infections are long standing.
Where is brucellosis usually found?
Although brucellosis can be found worldwide, it is more common in countries that do not have good standardized and effective public health and domestic animal health programs. Areas currently listed as high risk are the Mediterranean Basin (Portugal, Spain, Southern France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, North Africa), South and Central America, Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. Unpasteurized cheeses, sometimes called “village cheeses,” from these areas may represent a particular risk for tourists.
How is brucellosis transmitted to humans, and who is likely to become infected?
Humans are generally infected in one of three ways: eating or drinking something that is contaminated with Brucella, breathing in the organism (inhalation), or having the bacteria enter the body through skin wounds. The most common way to be infected is by eating or drinking contaminated milk products. When sheep, goats, cows, or camels are infected, their milk is contaminated with the bacteria. If the milk is not pasteurized, these bacteria can be transmitted to persons who drink the milk or eat cheeses made it. Inhalation of Brucella organisms is not a common route of infection, but it can be a significant hazard for people in certain occupations, such as those working in laboratories where the organism is cultured. Inhalation is often responsible for a significant percentage of cases in abattoir employees. Infection can be acquired through the handling of infected animal tissues, blood, urine, vaginal discharges, birth products, and aborted fetuses. Contamination of skin wounds may be a problem for persons working in slaughterhouses or meat packing plants or for veterinarians. Hunters may be infected through skin wounds or by accidentally ingesting the bacteria after cleaning deer, elk, moose, or wild pigs that they have killed.
Can brucellosis be spread from person to person?
Direct person-to-person spread of brucellosis is extremely rare. Infected mothers who are breast-feeding may transmit the infection to their infants. Sexual transmission has also been reported. Although uncommon, transmission may also occur via contaminated tissue transplantation or blood transfusion.
Is there a way to prevent infection?
Yes. Do not consume unpasteurized dairy products. Protective clothing and gloves should be worn when handling potentially infected materials from animals (see “How is Brucellosis Transmitted…”), and care should be taken to avoid aerosolization or splashing of potentially infected animal materials. Hunters and animal herdsman should use rubber gloves when handling viscera of animals. There is no vaccine available for humans.
How is brucellosis diagnosed?
Brucellosis can be diagnosed in a laboratory by finding Brucella organisms in samples of blood, bone marrow, or other tissues. Also, blood tests can be done to detect antibodies against the bacteria. If this method is used, two blood samples should be collected 2 weeks apart. Consultation and assistance with laboratory testing can be obtained from the Wyoming Department of Health Public Health Laboratory.
Is there a treatment for brucellosis?
Yes, but treatment can be difficult. Doctors can prescribe effective antibiotics. Usually, doxycycline and rifampin are used in combination for 6 weeks to prevent reoccuring infection. Depending on the timing of treatment and severity of illness, recovery may take a few weeks to several months. Mortality is low (<2%), and is usually associated with endocarditis.