What is brucellosis?

Brucellosis is an infectious disease caused by bacteria in the Brucella genus. Symptoms include fever, headache, weakness, profuse sweating, chills, weight loss, and general aching. Infections of organs including the liver, spleen, and lining of the heart may also occur.

Where does it come from?

Several Brucella species cause brucellosis in cattle, bison, elk, sheep, swine, dogs, coyotes, deer, and caribou. Recently, a new strain was found in seals and sea lions. The Washington State Department of Agriculture requires female cattle to be vaccinated against the disease. Washington was declared free of swine brucellosis in 1975 and of bovine brucellosis in 1988.

How is it spread?

People can be infected by consuming unpasteurized milk and dairy products from infected cows, sheep and goats. It can also be spread when skin wounds are contaminated through contact with infected animal tissue, urine, blood, vaginal discharges, aborted fetuses, and especially placentas. Inhalation of the bacteria is uncommon, but can present a risk to laboratory workers who handle Brucella specimens or abattoir employees. Person to person infection is unlikely. Brucella is a possible agent of bioterrorism.

What is the treatment?

A combination of antibiotics for at least six weeks is necessary.

How soon do symptoms appear?

Usually within 5 to 60 days of exposure, but up to several months.

How common is brucellosis?

Brucellosis is rare in humans in the United States. Most cases are among recent immigrants, people who have ingested food products imported from abroad, or in people who have traveled to countries where brucellosis is common. Occasionally there are cases reported in veterinarians, butchers, rendering plant workers, meat inspectors, hunters, and farmers. There were 20 cases reported in Washington between 1990 and 2009, most of which were infections in recent immigrants or acquired abroad.

How can we prevent the spread of brucellosis?

The main way to prevent human brucellosis is by eliminating the disease in domestic animals. Cattle, dairy goats, and swine imported from other states are required to have a health certificate indicating that they are brucellosis-free. If working with animal carcasses protect open wounds or abrasions with bandages and use protective clothing, gloves and goggles. Avoid picking up wildlife of any kind. Consume only pasteurized milk or milk products. Wash your hands after handling any animal carcass or raw meat product.

What should I do if I suspect someone in my family has brucellosis?

Contact your primary health care provider or call your local health department.

Where can I get more information?

For more information call Communicable Disease Epidemiology, 206-418-5500 or toll-free 877-539-4344.