Tuberculosis is a terrible disease that primarily affects our lungs. The affliction is usually transmitted from human to human via droplets of the bacteria released when we sneeze or cough in close proximity to other folks who contract it.
According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of TB include fatigue, fever, night sweats, chills, unintentional weight loss, coughing for up to three weeks, coughing up blood, chest pain, loss of appetite and more. While primarily affecting your lungs, tuberculosis can spread to your kidneys and spine — and even your brain.
Doesn’t sound good, does it?
One of the World’s Deadliest Diseases
Recent estimates suggest as many as one billion people around the globe are infected with tuberculosis bacteria. Each year, nine million people get sick from the disease and two million lose their lives.
While Americans are generally less susceptible to the disease than folks who come from different parts of the globe, due to the refugee crisis, the country’s open borders and overall global migration, U.S. citizens are increasingly at risk of contracting the often deadly disease.
Many folks think that tuberculosis is a disease that is only transmitted between humans. But they are wrong.
Cows and Tuberculosis
According to a recent CNN report, humans are increasingly getting tuberculosis from what many would likely consider to be an unlikely source: cows. TB can be transmitted via the food you eat, if you’re eating products made from infected cattle (e.g., meat, milk or cheese).
The strain that affects cows is, appropriately, called bovine tuberculosis. While it differs slightly from the most common human TB strain, enough similarities exist between the two that humans are still affected by it.
Where Bovine TB Is Most Common
According to the CDC, a majority of the bovine TB infections in the United States occur along the border between the U.S. and Mexico. What’s more, at a recent world conference on the disease, researchers announced the fact that 44 percent of Hispanic people who had TB were infected by its bovine strain. Why is that?
“40 percent of milk and dairy products in Mexico are consumed unpasteurized,” explains Alejandro Pereira-Ortiz, a member of the U.S. Department of Agriculture who works out of Mexico. “I see infected cattle herds and people eating fresh cheese and drinking fresh milk.”
Generally speaking, when infected cattle are identified, they’re slaughtered. In some countries, farmers are given financial compensation for each infected cattle they report. But even in those instances, more income can be gleaned from an unhealthy cow that can still produce than from one that’s been put down.
Many countries don’t even offer any financial compensation whatsoever for infected cows that are reported. Many farmers choose to keep mum. According to recent research, 65 percent of the cattle scanned in Ecuador tested positive for bovine TB.
Solving the Problem
Pasteurization, the process in which we heat foods and liquids to kill pathogenic bacteria, is highly helpful in combating transmission of bovine TB to humans.
But the disease can be spread other ways too: through fecal matter, urine, coughs and sneezes. Because many farmers, butchers and traders are practically inseparable from the animals on a daily basis, even the most careful ones are susceptible to the disease.
Researchers from Cambridge and Warwick recently concluded that the most effective way to treat bovine TB and stop its spread is either to test animals on a widespread basis and vaccinate the healthy or to simply cull infected herds altogether.
The researchers based their claims on the notion that 84 percent of bovine TB outbreaks can be traced to the movement of sick herds from one location to another.
The Costs of the Problem
In England, bovine TB costs farmers more than 100 million pounds a year.
For this reason, the number of infected cattle killed has risen dramatically over the last few decades. In 1998, roughly 6,000 cattle were killed to contain the spread of TB. By 2013, that number had skyrocketed to 26,603.
Bovine TB is quickly becoming a global epidemic, affecting folks from all corners of the planet. As the global population grows and we search for more and more sources of food, the spread of the disease must be contained.
Containment starts with education. Farmers need to know what symptoms to look for in infected animals. They also need to regularly test their stock to make sure they’re not selling food, milk or cheeses made from sick animals.
Consumers need to educate themselves as well. If a bunch of people who are drinking the same milk or eating the same cheese get sick, consumers should know to look elsewhere for a source of sustenance.
But the good news is that education is happening, and more and more folks are becoming aware of the serious nature of bovine TB. Let’s hope the global community can work together to eradicate the disease by the World Health Organization’s goal of 2035.
Jennifer Landis is a health journalist and the editor of MissRX.com and Mindfulness Mama.com. She is passionate about health, wellness, and the human body and loves to dig deep to find the facts on the latest health trends. When she is not writing and editing you will likely find her at home trying to keep up with her toddler, whipping up something healthy in the kitchen, or watching Dr. Who with her husband.