An outbreak of a debilitating airborne infection that can floor people for months, and in some cases kill, is more widespread than first thought, Chinese officials have confirmed.
News reports have said the disease’s spread is “way larger” than expected and has led to “widespread concern” about its consequences.
Almost 3500 people in the city of Lanzhou, in northwest China, have now tested positive for brucellosis, a bacterial infection which can have the side effect of inflamed testicles and can render some men infertile.
Alarm bells were raised more than a year ago when people began falling ill in Lanzhou in China’s Gansu Province.
Typical initial symptoms of brucellosis include a flu-like illness with weakness, sweats, weight loss and muscle pain. But its effects can be far more invasive with 2 per cent of those infected dying from the disease.
It’s usually spread to humans from animals, often via undercooked meat, but also through consuming unpasteurised dairy products such as raw milk and cheese.
However, it can also be inhaled which is how the thousands in Lanzhou were infected.
VACCINE FACTORY SPREAD DISEASE
The bacteria can take time to manifest itself with the first cases not noted until November at a veterinary college.
Given the close contact people at the college would have had with animals, initial investigations were focused there.
However, it has now been discovered that the Lanzhou Biopharmaceutical Plant had been accidentally pumping out the brucella bacteria while, ironically, producing a vaccine for brucellosis.
For around a month between July and August, the factory had used out-of-date sanitisers during production of the virus that had allowed bacteria containing aerosols to waft over the local area.
Initially only a small number of people were thought to be infected, but testing of 21,000 residents has now uncovered 3245 with the bacteria in their systems. No deaths have been reported.
“The number is way larger than expected and raised widespread concern over the disease’s spread and its consequences,” reported China’s state-run Global Times newspaper.
The extent of the outbreak led the disease to trend on Chinese social media site Weibo.
‘LAZY MAN’S DISEASE’
One of the chief concerns with brucellosis is the severity and longevity of some of its more serious side effects.
According to NSW Health, aside from flu-like symptoms, the infection can lead to inflammation of the liver and spleen, and respiratory problems may occur. If it invades the heart valves, it can be fatal.
“In males, the testicles may become inflamed,” stated the health authority. It can also cause lasting damage to the reproductive system and can lead to infertility in men.
Some people may get few or no symptoms. But for others it can drag on for months.
“The infection typically lasts for days or months but can occasionally last for a year or more and may recur,” said NSW Health.
“Pregnant women and their babies are at risk of developing severe disease. If left untreated, infection may cause birth defects, spontaneous abortion or foetal death.”
In China, the long-lasting malaise caused by brucellosis means sufferers may be unable to work, leading it to be dubbed the “lazy man’s disease”.
Talking to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, veterinary professor at Yangzhou University Zhu Guoqiang said the sheer size of the Lanzhou outbreak was notable.
“It’s one of the most serious incidents because of the large number of people involved,” he said.
“I’m not sure the bacteria they were exposed to in the exhaust air from the vaccine production process was as toxic as the ones found in patients who have been dealing with infected animals,” Prof Zhu said.
In Australia, the brucella infection is widespread in feral pigs in Queensland and in feral dogs in northern NSW as well as dogs that have been involved in pig hunting.
It is not found in goat, sheep or camel populations in Australia and has been eradicated from cattle.