Glanders is a disease in horses and other Equidae (horse family of animals, order Perissodactyla), but can be transmitted to humans and other domestic animals. The disease is also known as farcy. The bacterial agent, Burkholderia mallei, of glanders is a rod-shaped bacteria typically rounded at the ends. In cultures, the bacterium appears in pairs or short chains. The bacterium thrives in glycerin at the optimal temperature of 37 degrees Celsius. The bacterium dies in the presence of heat and antiseptics.
The severe form of the disease can kill the Equidae victim in a few weeks. Horses are the only reservoir of Glanders. Infected animals are typically slaughtered to contain the disease. The disease is rare in humans but could be contracted by humans through close contact with horses or ingesting horse meat.
The ancient disease is believed to have accompanied the early domestication of horses. The disease was first described by Aristotle in the mid 3rd Century BCE; it was also described by Apsyrtus and Vegetius, two noted Roman veterinarians. It is mentioned in Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew (c.1623) in Act III Scene II to describe the laughable state of Petruchio's horse. The disease also makes an appearance in Chapter 28 of Alexander Dumas' The Three Musketeers (1844-45) as a common affliction that killed horses.
Until the mid-19th century, many believed glanders to be a spontaneous rather than infectious disease, but in 1837, Pierre-François-Olive Rayer proved the transmittable nature of glanders. Rayer was able to infect a horse with material from a case of human glanders. The infectious agent that causes glanders was first isolated by German bacteriologists Friedrich Löffler and Wilhelm Schütz in 1882. The same year, French scientists Bouchard, Charrin and Capitan also isolated the glanders bacteria. In 1891, the Mallein test was developed by Russian scientists Gelman and Kalning as a diagnostic tool for glanders. Mallein, a concentrated glycerin fluid in which glanders bacteria has grown, is injected or introduced as eye drops into a horse's eyes. A swollen eye-lid after one or two days marks a positive test result.
Glanders was imported to the United States during the second half of the 19th Century, most likely during the American Civil War with the large movement of horses from Europe. The disease was eliminated from the United States by the early 20th century.
In May 2000, a 33-year old microbiologist at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), developed a case of laboratory-acquired glanders, the first case of human glanders in the US since 1945. Because of the rarity of the disease and its flu-like symptoms, diagnosis was difficult and almost two months elapsed before small, bipolar, Gram negative rods were discovered in the microbiologist's liver fluid and blood cultures. After proper treatment, the microbiologist recovered.
As a biological weapons agent, glanders could be used against humans and livestock. Sources indicated that during World War I, glanders was spread by Germany on the Eastern Front to affect Russian horses and mules. German agents in the US also reportedly infected horses and cattle being taken across the Atlantic to France. During World War II, the Japanese developed glanders as a possible weapon against horses, civilians and POWs. The disease was studied by the United States biological weapons program as a possible agent in 1943-44, but was never weaponized. The Soviet biological weapons program developed antibiotic resistant strains of glanders. It was reported that the Soviet Army launched small scale attacks with glanders in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
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