Health in China: exhaust fumes from animal vaccine plant leave thousands sick with brucellosis
- Company used out-of-date sanitisers in the production of brucella vaccines, allowing the bacteria to enter its exhaust air
- Health authorities test almost 22,000 people and find 3,245 have brucella bacteria antibodies
Thousands of residents of a northwest China city have been diagnosed with a highly infectious bacterial disease known as brucellosis after being exposed to polluted air from a pharmaceutical company last year.
Health authorities in Lanzhou, capital of Gansu province, said on Tuesday they had tested 21,847 people and 3,245 were positive for brucella bacteria antibodies.
The infections were caused by contaminated exhaust fumes from the Lanzhou Biopharmaceutical Plant, a unit of state-owned China Animal Husbandry Industry.
The company was found to have used out-of-date sanitisers in the production of brucella vaccines, allowing the bacteria to enter its exhaust air and infecting people living and working nearby.
Health authorities said in December the factory used the expired sanitisers between July 24 and August 20. The company had its licence to manufacture the vaccines revoked and eight of its senior managers were punished.
The brucella bacteria affects livestock such as sheep, goat and pigs but can be passed from animals to humans. Symptoms of infection include fever, bone and joint pain, and reproductive system problems.
Many of the people affected worked at the Lanzhou Veterinary Research Institute, located just a few hundred metres from the plant.
The presence of the antibodies in the test subjects was evidence they had breathed in the contaminated air, the health commission said.
In the wake of the discovery, 11 hospitals were designated to provide free treatment to the thousands of patients, each of whom has since had monthly health checks.
It is not known how many people have been given the all-clear, and the Lanzhou Health Commission declined to comment on the matter.
However, the commission said that all those affected would receive financial compensation, starting from next month.
While brucellosis is not unknown in China it is relatively uncommon and tends to affect only those people who have a lot of close contact with animals, such as farmhands, veterinary surgeons and abattoir workers.
Zhu Guoqiang, a professor at Yangzhou University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said the Lanzhou incident was notable for its scale.
“It’s one of the most serious incidents because of the large number of people involved,” he said.
Zhu said he did not know the toxicity of the bacteria the people of Lanzhou had been exposed to.
“I’m not sure the bacteria they were exposed to in the exhaust air from the vaccine production process was as toxic as the ones found in patients who have been dealing with infected animals.”
Vets were particularly wary of the disease because it was so hard to treat and took a long time to recover from, he said.
In serious cases brucellosis could cause lasting damage to the reproductive system, especially in young men, he said.
“If not treated properly, men can become infertile.”