Vet corner: Tuberculosis threat – The danger is still very real after 200 years

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Along with all the previous reasons to monitor for chronic diseases such as TB, comes some relatively new reasons — antimicrobial resistance and spillover. Picture: SUPPLIED

This disease recognised in cattle and humans is caused by bacteria in a family called mycobacteria.

This was the first organism found way back in the late 1800s to be a cause of a disease.

It was called “consumption” and for good reason.

The mycobacteria causing TB in cattle has the ability to infect an incredible number of different species including humans.

The mycobacteria causing TB in humans can be passed back to animals.

This ability of organisms to hop around has been a concern in the human and veterinary fields for decades, but no more than with recent evidence of this capability with COVID-19 viruses.

I grew up in a town in Manitoba, Canada which served as host for a TB sanitarium which opened in May 1909.

The Manitoba Lung Association reports that at that time, effective medications were not available to treat TB.

Instead, patients with TB were isolated from the general public and prescribed rest and good nutrition.

The sanatarium in Ninette was the centre for TB treatment in Manitoba and in 1926 became the base for mobile x-ray clinics, the first preventative health program in Canada.

It is an understatement to say this was pioneering medicine and surgery.

In the late 1940s, advances in the development of medications for the treatment of TB reduced the need for patients to spend long periods in sanataria.

Between 1959 and 1975, the existing sanatoria as a treatment of TB was discontinued though some continued treating patients with non-communicable, long-term illnesses.

TB is a disease in humans made worse by poor nutrition, unsanitary living conditions and minimal screening.

TB is a disease in animals, mostly cattle, made worse by slowly stealing the nutrition from the animals, spread easily by living conditions and poor programs of eradication.

Screening for the disease costs money, expertise, medical/veterinary protocols and understanding.

Eradication programs are to eradicate a disease known to devastate people and animals.

TB bacteria is developing resistance to medication that once was thoroughly effective in treating the disease in people.

This is a disease not restricted to cattle or people.

A recent paper titled “Diagnostic and public health investigation of Mycobacterium tuberculosis infection in a dog in Ontario, Canada” published in Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation 2022, confirms this.

This in a country with a robust TB surveillance, and testing capabilities.

Left undetected and untreated, allowed to spread in, say, a herd of cattle this organism grows quite happily.

It is a disease of the lungs, but affects many other tissues as well.

Drinking raw milk is one of the most common ways people get bovine TB.

If you are a meat eater, you should want healthy animals (and by extension your food).

In veterinary school we were cautioned against using food terms to describe appearance of disease, but I am thinking this would have been a very effective way to convince people of the need to address animal health issues.

Human TB is commonly spread through air and via respiratory and secretions — which is why many communities adopted “don’t spit in public” bylaws.

There may come a time when the sanitarium is required again because there is no medication that will be effective.

The disease tuberculosis illustrates one Health principles.

We can’t run from nature, we are part of nature and nature is more like a spider web than a superhighway.

Individual animals suffer as they are slowly “consumed”, but not before they have passed along the disease to subsequent generations.

Cattle production suffers because individual animals suffer.

There is an obligation due from veterinary and human medical groups to society to inform/cajole/push the lawmakers and the general public to understand some of the consequences of doing nothing so they will do something.

In 1975 the “Ninette San” closed, and with it that close-knit community.

I daresay the patients would have preferred a different reason to become part of the community.


• JO OLVER is a doctor of veterinary medicine. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of this newspaper.

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