A year later, China's 'quieter outbreak’ makes a comeback

At the end of last year, thousands of residents of the north-western city of Lanzhou were stricken with brucellosis, a highly contagious disease caused by contaminants from a state-owned biopharmaceutical factory. Although local officials said the disease would heal itself over time, many residents are still suffering from it.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Months before the global pandemic started in the central Chinese city of Wuhan at the end of last year, thousands of residents near a biopharmaceutical plant in the north-western city of Lanzhou were exposed to a highly contagious and hard-to-treat disease called brucellosis caused by contaminated exhaust at a biopharmaceutical factory.

Most people tested positive for the antibodies of the disease, which commonly occurs among sheep, cattle, goats, pigs and dogs and also is called Malta Fever or Mediterranean Fever. The disease can cause recurring fever, joint pain and severe headaches, among other symptoms.

Chronic brucellosis is especially hard to cure and causes a general lack of energy and a persistent feverish state. Symptoms can last months or even years and damage human fertility, although the disease is rarely deadly.

According to Caixin Global, a China-based English-language website, there are more than 10 residential communities with a combined population of more than 10,000 located within one kilometre of the plant. Antibody tests later showed that more than 3,000 were infected.

One of the victims, 40-year-old shopkeeper Gao Hong (not her real name) was hit with crippling joint pain and persistent fever. It took nearly six months for doctors to diagnose her condition as brucellosis, an animal-borne infectious bacterial disease. By then, she had missed the window for the most effective treatment, leaving her with a hard-to-cure chronic condition that requires long-term medication.

Gao’s nightmare started at the Lanzhou Biopharmaceutical Plant, a unit of state-owned China Animal Husbandry Industry Co. Ltd. located in the north-eastern periphery of Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province.

On 26 December, local health authorities said that the factory used expired sanitisers while producing Brucella vaccines between 24 July and 20 August. This resulted in the bacteria entering the factory’s exhaust and infecting people nearby

Most of the patients tested positive for brucellosis antibodies, but few were formally diagnosed. Patients said doctors seemed inexplicably reluctant to issue brucellosis diagnoses or to quickly order aggressive treatments.

Although local officials maintained that the disease would be self-healing over time, many residents are still suffering health damage undermining their quality of life.

Brucellosis spread in China in the 1970s and 1980s but has been effectively controlled. Sporadic outbreaks often appear in pastoral regions such as North China’s Inner Mongolia autonomous region. The country’s Law on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases lists brucellosis as a class II infectious disease along with AIDS and SARS.

Several people from the Yanchangbao neighbourhoods around the Lanzhou Biopharmaceutical Plant told Caixin they started showing symptoms including low fever and joint pain around September for unknown reasons.

It was not until the 26 December briefing held by the Gansu Provincial Health Commission and the Lanzhou city government that they realised they could have been exposed to brucellosis.

At the briefing, officials said that as of 25 December, 181 of 671 blood samples tested positive for brucellosis antibodies among staff members and students at the Lanzhou Veterinary Research Institute in the neighbourhoods where the disease was first detected

In late December, the government arranged free blood tests and health consultations for residents in the Yanchangbao areas. But no test results were made public.

Caixin learnt that by the end of February, about 20,000 people in Lanzhou received tests for antibodies for the Brucella bacterium. More than 3,000 were confirmed with positive results.

Local authorities said the leak caused by the biopharmaceutical plant contained low levels of bacteria that wouldn’t damage people’s health and would be shed from the human body within six months. Those tested positive without symptoms didn’t need medical treatment.

The unusual emergence of brucellosis in urban Lanzhou was first detected at the Lanzhou Veterinary Research Institute, an affiliate of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. The institute is less than 500 metres north of the Lanzhou Biopharmaceutical Plant.

According to students at the institute, a researcher in mid-November found some lab mice infected with Brucella bacterium, and the two students involved in the research tested positive for the pathogen. Other members of the research team were infected as well.

At the same time, news of the brucellosis outbreak at the institute started circulating on the internet, fuelling fears. The Veterinary Research Institute halted all operations to trace the infection and conduct sanitation. But no origin was confirmed, and people were puzzled that many staffers who had no contact with animals were also infected.

It was not until the 26 December government briefing that people at the institute realised the bacteria came from the neighbouring factory. The briefing confirmed 181 positive antibody results at the institute, without giving further updates. In June the final number of cases of infection at the facility was around 210.

Following the official confirmation, people in nearby communities flooded into hospitals to take tests. The Lanzhou No. 2 Hospital said it tested 1,274 samples between 28 December and 1 January.

By the end of February, more 3,000 people tested positive for brucellosis antibodies covering almost all age groups, including 213 from the Veterinary Research Institute, eight from the Lanzhou Biopharmaceutical Plant, more than 2,500 residents of nearby neighbourhoods and more than 150 people in farther areas.

The infection has caused more pain than physical illness in some people in Yanchangbao. A woman who was two months pregnant tested positive in January and was warned by doctors that there would be risks in delivering the baby. In June, she told Caixin that she had an abortion.

For other parents, the greatest concern is whether the infection could cause potential health risks to their children.

People close to local authorities said that in March the Lanzhou government issued an internal report regarding compensation to people affected by the incident, but a formal policy has yet to be made public.