I’ve often blogged about biological weapons—both those used in the past and those with potential for use in your new thriller plots. The world’s population has certainly been victim to biological warfare in the past.
In 184 BC, Hannibal’s warriors hurled pots of deadly viper snakes onto the decks of enemy ships. In the 1100s, bodies of plague and smallpox victims were thrown over the city walls of enemies; and in 1495, Spaniards offered the French wine spiked with leper’s blood. These are but a few examples of the many ancient biologicals used historically in warfare, not to mention the nerve gases developed and used by Germany during the First and Second World Wars.
Today, the world has a plethora of biological agents available in secret government warehouses and there are treasure-troves of lethal weapons that can be used as the focus of intriguing thriller plots.
One such biological agent that I’ve not come across until recently is brucellosis. This interesting biological is a zoonotic infection, meaning that it’s a disease that can be spread between animals and humans. Six out of ten of the world’s most infectious diseases in humans are spread from animals, and brucellosis is reported to be the most common zoonotic infection.
Brucellosis is a bacterial disease originating mainly from cows—but also from swine, goats and sheep. It’s been known throughout history by various common names, including Mediterranean fever, Malta fever, gastric remittent fever and undulant fever.
One of the main sources of brucellosis infection is consumption of raw milk from farm animals. A 20-year study of the global burden of human brucellosis has determined that 500,000 people worldwide are infected with this disease every year. The areas of the world most affected include Eastern Europe, Asia, Central and South America, and regions of Africa.
Most of the cases reported in the United States are due to consumption of illegally imported, unpasteurized dairy products (milk and cheese) from Mexico. Approximately 60% of human brucellosis cases in the US now occur in California and Texas.
There is growing interest in brucellosis diagnosis and treatment by the World Health Organization (WHO) because of the growing phenomena of international tourism and population migration, as well as the potential to use the Brucella bacterium as a biological weapon.
Death from a brucellosis infection is rare, but recovery from this debilitating illness can take weeks and up to several months. The initial symptoms of fever and sweats, anorexia and headaches, fatigue to general malaise, and pain in the muscles, joints and spine can progress in severity over time. Serious neurological complications and endocarditis can also occur.
The solution to the global spread of brucellosis in humans is two-fold: 1) the control and elimination of the disease in animals via culling of the infected animals and animal vaccinations; and 2) pasteurization of milk prior to consumption or use in making cheeses and other food products.
I love milk and drink lots of it. But, the next time I see a commercial for “Got Milk?” I’ll remind myself to be assured that what I consume doesn’t have brucellosis riding along with it.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!