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Mass. health officials suspect human case of brucellosis

A man who drank raw milk produced at a Western Massachusetts dairy farm may have been infected with brucellosis, state officials said yesterday, raising concerns about the emergence of a germ that has not been seen in livestock here in at least two decades.

Brucellosis is an infectious disease primarily from animal to animal, but it can be acquired by humans through consumption of raw milk.

Officials from the state Department of Public Health said they are investigating Twin Rivers Farm in Ashley Falls as the possible source of the infection, because the infected man purchased raw milk there. The dairy sells raw milk only at the facility, not in retail stores. Officials urged anyone who bought raw milk there to discard it.


The owners of Twin Rivers Farm could not be reached for comment.

Raw milk is not pasteurized, a process that heats food to kill bacteria. Health officials stressed that pasteurized milk is safe to drink.

Dr. Alfred DeMaria, the state’s top disease tracker, said that the infected man, who was not identified because of patient confidentiality rules, is believed to have consumed the milk in late December. But because the illness often starts with flulike symptoms, the source was difficult to pinpoint at first.

“It can percolate along with fever, fatigue, muscle aches, and with nonspecific symptoms and can be very difficult to diagnose,’’ DeMaria said.

“It’s an astute physician that worked it out’’ and alerted public health officials last night, DeMaria said.

The man is recovering and is at home, DeMaria said, and there have been no other reported human infections.

The disease can become more serious and infect the central nervous system or organs and can cause long-lasting or chronic symptoms that include recurrent fevers, joint pain, and fatigue.

Results of preliminary tests to confirm the infection are expected back next week.


State agriculture officials have worked hard over the past half century to reduce brucellosis infections in livestock.

Dr. Eugene White, an associate professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, said the disease is not widely contagious among farm animals, but in areas of the world where it is common, such as South America, it can significantly hamper a herd’s ability to reproduce.

“In regions of the world that have this commonly, 10 to 25 percent of cows will abort,’’ he said.

Dr. Catherine Brown, the state’s public health veterinarian, said the germ is not typically found in the United States and particularly not in New England.

“We have not seen the bacteria identified in a Massachusetts animal in decades,’’ she said.

If the infection is confirmed, it will have “significant implications’’ for Massachusetts livestock, she said. “We will have to figure out how the organism got here, if other livestock was exposed, and if others are at risk.’’

William Gillmeister of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources said his agency has inspected Twin Rivers Farm and found it to be a well-run business with no history of problems. He said investigators are still trying to determine the source of the infection and are not certain that it is in the farm’s raw milk, but the milk sales have been discontinued.

Gillmeister said farms must obtain a permit from his department to sell raw milk.


“We regularly test the milk to make sure it is safe,’’ he said.

The department and health officials are advising consumers who have purchased raw milk from Twin Rivers Farm to discard it, and anyone who believes they became ill from drinking raw milk should immediately seek medical attention and notify the local board of health or the state’s Food Protection Program at 617-983-6712.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.