Brucellosis is an infectious disease caused by one of four species of the Brucella bacteria: Brucella melitensis, Brucella abortus, Brucella suis, and Brucella canis. The disease is most prevalent in cattle, bison, and swine herds, and is often called Bang's Fever or Contagious Abortion. In humans, the disease is known as Undulant Fever because of the severe intermittent fever accompanying human infection, or Malta fever because it was first recognized as a human disease on the island of Malta. The disease had reportedly infected humans for centuries in the Mediterranean and was believed to be an exotic strain of typhoid fever. Not especially contagious, the bacteria are highly infectious when transmitted by aerosol and incapacitates with flu-like fevers for months.
During the Crimean War, the British were concerned about outbreaks of fever among troops. The bacterium was recognized as a separate entity in 1861 by Jeffery Allen Marston when he described the clinical characteristics of his own infect. In 1887, Dr. David Bruce, a British army surgeon, first saw a cluster of brucella bacteria in the spleen tissue of a human victim killed by the disease. Bruce's wife, Mary Steele Bruce, who was an assistant at prominent German scientist Robert Koch's laboratory, became his assistant for the next thirty years and shared in his achievements. In 1887, Bruce isolated the casual organism of the disease and reproduced the disease in a monkey that he purchased himself. Bruce called the bacteria Micrococcus melitensis. The disease was later called "Bruce's bacillus," which evolved to become Brucella.
The disease was fully described in a classic monograph in 1897 by Surgeon Captain M. Louis Hughes. In 1897, Sir Almroth Wright and Frederick Smith developed a diagnostic test for the disease. Investigations continued and in 1905, the Maltese doctor Dr. Temi Zammit tried to infect goats when he discovered most goats were already infected. Further, he discovered, the infection was transmitted to humans through raw goats' milk.
The termination of goats' milk imports from Malta brought an end to the disease in Gibraltar. In 1906, the elimination of goat's milk from the diet of the military forces on Malta halted the disease among military personnel but the civilians, who continued to drink the goat's milk, continued to be susceptible.
In 1897, the Danish doctor Bernard L. F. Bang isolated the Brucella abortus strain in cows and discovered that cows were natural reservoirs of the bacteria. The disease in cattle is often known as Bang's disease. In 1911, the Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI) later called the United States Department of Agriculture-Animal and Plan Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS) discovered the Brucella bacteria in seemingly healthy US cattle. In 1918, the American bacteriologist Alice Evans connected Bang's disease and the Malta Fever studied by Dr. David Bruce to the same bacillus. In 1936, Dr. John M. Buck, a veterinary bacteriologist, conducted the first vaccine field trial with Brucella abortus Strain 19 vaccine for cattle.
As of the turn of the 21st Century, the disease remains a worldwide disease in humans even though numerous international congresses have been held in an attempt to eradicate it. A joint Food and Agriculture Organization/ World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) brucellosis organization has established centers for the training of personnel and the unification of field and laboratory procedures. Despite these efforts, in 1990, it was estimated that there were over half a million cases of brucellosis globally.
Brucellosis as a Biological Agent
Brucellosis was a prime candidate for weaponization in the development of the biological weapons program in the United States. The US developed the bacteria in the 1950s due to its low lethality, manufacturing ease, and the fact it does not cause uncontrollable epidemics. It was code named Agent US and was considered a 'humane' weapon. Also, because of its sensitivity to sunlight, the agent could be released in an open field at night but be eliminated by morning. A problem with the bacteria was its short shelf life; it decomposed within a few months of initial production.
Tests were conducted with Brucella in 1952 at Utah's Dugway Proving Ground. The agent was field tested in the form of four pound bombs, and was one of the three incapacitating agents developed by the United States. The same summer, the bacterium was released on a mock enemy city of guinea pigs. Personnel involved supposedly quipped, "Now we know what to do if we ever go to war against guinea pigs." In December 1953 in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, facilities were built that produced large amounts of casings and the capability to produce the brucellosis bacteria as needed. The US stockpiled 2.5 million empty casings.
It was suspected that the Soviet Union also stockpiled the bacteria. Reports have suggested that the Iraqi biological weapons program may have included Brucella mellitensis agents.
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