A man’s habit of hunting feral pigs exposed him to a rare brain infection, doctors in Florida say. In a recent case report, they detail how the man developed a serious kind of infection that’s mostly disappeared in the U.S., caused by Brucella bacteria.
Brucella infection, or brucellosis, was once a lot more common. Many animals in the wild can carry these bacteria, as can livestock. In some countries, a common name for the disease was “goat fever” — highlighting a very common symptom and animal source. Other common signs of infection include sweating, fatigue, and weight loss. More rarely, the bacteria can invade the nervous system, causing serious inflammation in the brain and neurological symptoms like severe headaches, seizure, and changes in behaviour.
Since the early 20th century, though, efforts to stamp out brucellosis have been largely successful. There’s an available vaccine for livestock, while countries like the U.S. routinely test for Brucella in cows. The process of pasteurization, which gets rid of many disease-causing bacteria in dairy products, has further lowered the risk of exposure. These days, in fact, the few cases of brucellosis in the U.S. reported annually are usually tied to people consuming raw, unpasteurized milk or cheese. But this new case study, published in BMJ Case Reports this month, suggests that hunting may be another source of infection for humans.
According to the report, the man had been dealing with fever, headache, and other nonspecific symptoms affecting various parts of his body for 11 months by the time he saw doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. Given his reported love of hunting feral pigs — animals that carry their own species of Brucella bacteria — the doctors suspected and confirmed that he had neurobrucellosis. He was then given an extensive course of antibiotics orally and through IV.
The infection was successfully treated, but the man was left with some lingering neurological complications. According to study author Julio Mendez, though, he’s doing well now.
These bacteria remain a real public health danger in poorer areas of the world, where it’s difficult to vaccinate livestock or effectively control outbreaks when they happen. But the rarity of the disease in the U.S. also means that doctors here could miss diagnosing it at first, especially since its symptoms tend to be vague and resemble many other diseases. One lesson that Mendez and his team hope that other doctors take away from this report is to strongly suspect these infections in people at high risk of exposure, a group that should include feral swine hunters. Hunters should also watch out for Brucella in the wild, both during hunting (the bacteria can enter the skin through open wounds or be inhaled when in close contact with a freshly killed infected animal) and afterward.
“Hunters need to protect themselves when hunting animals and avoid eating or drinking raw or uncooked meats or unpasteurized milk, respectively,” Mendez told Gizmodo in an email.
As for the feral pigs, this is really the only latest trouble they’ve stirred up. Growing hog populations in places like Arkansas and Puerto Rico are causing property and crop destruction, as well as occasional injury to residents unlucky enough to get in their way.