Bovine tuberculosis and bovine brucellosis affect both cattle and African buffalo worldwide

Posted on September 17, 2021

Professor Anita Michel, researcher in the Faculty of Veterinary Science, unpacked the differences between bovine tuberculosis and bovine brucellosis.

What are the common symptoms of bovine and brucellosis tuberculosis?

Bovine tuberculosis and bovine brucellosis are two different diseases that affect both cattle and African buffalo worldwide. Some countries have successfully eradicated one or both diseases, but they continue to be a serious impediment to livestock farming especially in developing countries which lack the resources for control.

Bovine brucellosis causes abortions and reduced fertility in cattle, while bovine tuberculosis is a respiratory disease in cattle, very similar to human tuberculosis in humans. As a chronic condition, it induces weight loss and a general state of weakness which leads to death.  

In which areas are these types of tuberculosis found in South Africa?

Both diseases occur in all nine provinces in South Africa, whereby brucellosis is more widespread and causing higher economic losses than bovine tuberculosis.

Can human beings die because of such tuberculosis or is it common in livestock only?

Both bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis are so-called zoonoses, diseases that can be transmitted from their animal reservoirs to humans. Humans can become infected through the consumption of raw milk from infected cows or through direct contact with infected cattle. For brucellosis infection is most common through handling the afterbirth or aborted foetuses, which makes brucellosis an occupational disease, affecting mostly farmers, farm workers and veterinary professionals.

How can the community avoid the spreading of these types of tuberculosis (tips)?

Most important is milk safety, meaning to strictly consume pasteurised milk as heat treatment kills both disease-causing agents. If untreated milk is consumed, it is vital that the milk is obtained from cattle herds which have been tested and certified free of bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis.

In South Africa, the burden of bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis in humans is currently unknown and most probably underestimated, because it is difficult to diagnose these diseases in humans. Bovine tuberculosis presents largely with the same symptoms as human tuberculosis and the diagnostic tests used cannot differentiate between human and bovine tuberculosis. The symptoms of brucellosis in humans mostly resemble those of common febrile illnesses such as flu or malaria and can be easily misdiagnosed if no specific testing is done. It is therefore important for patients that frequently drink unpasteurised milk or handle cattle and attend to calvings and who experience symptoms as described above to mention these risk factors during a consultation with their doctor.

Faculty of Veterinary Science research is ongoing to determine the extent of both diseases in the human population.

- Author Jimmy Masombuka

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