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China brucellosis: Bacterial outbreak infects thousands after Lanzhou factory leak

The Health Commission of Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, confirmed that 3,245 people had contracted the disease brucellosis, which is often caused by contact with domestic animals carrying the bacteria brucella.

A further 1,401 people have tested positive so far, although no deaths have been reported, the city’s health commission said. In all, authorities tested 21,847 people out of the city’s 2.9 million inhabitants.

The disease, also known as Malta fever or Mediterranean fever, can cause symptoms including headaches, muscle aches, fever and fatigue. Although these may subside, some symptoms may become chronic or never go away, such as arthritis or swelling in certain organs, according to the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Transmission between humans and humans is extremely rare, according to the CDC. Instead, most people become infected by eating contaminated food or inhaling the bacteria ̵

1; which seems to be the case in Lanzhou.

This outbreak stemmed from a leak at Zhongmu Lanzhou Biological Pharmaceutical Factory that took place between late July to late August last year, according to the city’s health commission. While producing Brucella vaccines for animal husbandry, the factory used expired disinfectants and disinfectants – meaning that not all bacteria were eradicated in the waste gas.

This polluted waste gas formed aerosols that contained the bacteria – and leaked into the air, carried by wind down to the Lanzhou Veterinary Research Institute, where the eruption first hit.

People at the institute started reporting infections in November and it accelerated rapidly. By the end of December, at least 181 people at the institute had been infected with brucellosis, according to the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua.

Other infected patients included students and faculty members from Lanzhou University; the outbreak even spread to Heilongjiang province, on the very northeastern tip of the country, where 13 positive cases had worked at the veterinary institute in August, Xinhua reported at the time.

In the months following the outbreak, provincial and municipal officials launched an investigation into the leak at the factory, according to the Lanzhou Health Commission. In January, authorities had revoked vaccination production permits for the plant and withdrawn product approval numbers for its two brucellosis vaccines.
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A total of seven veterinary drug approval numbers were also canceled at the factory.

In February, the factory issued a public apology, saying it had “severely punished” eight people determined to be responsible for the incident. It added that it would cooperate with local authorities in the response and clean-up efforts and contribute to a compensation program for those affected.

The Lanzhou Health Commission also announced in its report on Tuesday that 11 public hospitals would provide free and regular check-ups for the infected patients. The report did not provide further details on compensation to patients, except that it would be launched in batches from October.

Brucellosis had been much more common in China in the 1980s, although it has since declined with the advent of vaccines and better disease prevention and control. There have still been a bit of brucellosis outbreaks around the world in the last few decades; an outbreak in Bosnia infected about 1,000 people in 2008, leading to the slaughter of sheep and other infected livestock.
In the United States, brucellosis has cost the federal government and the livestock industry billions of dollars. About 60% of female bison in Yellowstone National Park carry the bacteria, according to national park officials.

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