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Brucellosis & Bioterror- Seperating Fact from Fiction

This past July, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Montana) based his opposition to Rep. Nick Rahall’s (D-West Virginia) amendment to the Interior Appropriations bill banning the use of federal monies by NPS and USFS for the killing of Yellowstone bison on the assertion that brucellosis is a major bioterrorism threat and human health risk.

Congressman Rehberg stated “There are people all over this country and in the State of Montana that carry undulant fever, brucellosis; and they get it from these animals.”
The truth is that there has not been a reported case of undulant fever in Montana since 1995, and that there have been only 46 reported cases in Montana since 1957 none of which resulted from contact with wild bison. According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cases of human brucellosis in the United States are rare with around 100 reported cases a year, again, none resulting from contact with wild bison.
Representative Rehberg also cited a document outlining biological agents that “have the potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety”.

In the CDC’s interim rule for meeting with the conditions of The Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002, the section addressing overlap select agents and toxins (42 CFR 73.5), does include seven bacteria species in an alphabetical list one of which is brucella abortus. However, according to Appendix 1 of the Public Health Assessment of Potential Biological Terrorism Agents prepared by the CDC, brucellosis is a category B bacterium while Anthrax, a much more serious bacteria according to the document, is placed in category A. Further, in the CDC’s Brucellosis overview, brucella meletensis and brucella suis are considered much more important than brucella abortus in terms of public health security and preparedness. The fact of the matter is that wild bison, potentially infected with brucella abortus, do not pose a human health danger.
Representative Rehberg’s contention that brucella abortus in wild bison poses a “herd health danger” to cattle is also vastly overstated.

Two effective vaccines currently exist for brucella abortus for domestic cattle, Strain 19 and RB51. In Grand Teton National Park, domestic cattle and potentially infected wild bison have commingled for over 50 years without a single instance of brucellosis transmission. The simple fact is that under natural conditions with vaccinated cattle, wild bison pose virtually no risk of brucellosis transmission. Further, The National Research Council’s study titled, Brucellosis in the Greater Yellowstone Area, concludes, ”the current risk of transmission from YNP bison to cattle is low.” The study also states that there has never been a documented case of transmission from wild bison to cattle.

In addition to the low risk of transmission from wild bison, many other species of wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone area are potentially infected with brucellosis. These include elk, deer, moose, bighorn sheep, coyote, wolf, muskrat, and beaver. None of these species are subject to the harsh management practices of the Montana Department of Livestock and all are allowed unfettered access into Montana from Yellowstone National Park.

State of Montana, Public Health Records. “Human Brucella Cases, Montana 1957 to 7/2000”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Summary of notifiable diseases, United States, 1996. MMWR 1996;45(53): [p.26].
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Health and Human Services. Interim final rule. 42 CFR Part 73.5, Possession, Use, and Transfer of Select Agents and Toxins, United States, 2002
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Public Health Assessment of Potential Biological Terrorism Agents. Lisa D. Rotz, Ali S. Khan, Scott R. Lillibridge, Stephen M. Ostroff, and James M. Hughes, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. 2002.
Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Brucellosis in the Greater Yellowstone Area. www.fwp.state.mt.us
The National Research Council, Brucellosis in the Greater Yellowstone Area. National Academy of Sciences Press, Washington, DC. 1998 p. 80,45.

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