Glanders Found in Stray Mexican Donkey in Texas

Highly contagious disease hasn't been seen in US since 1942

The 2015 edition of at least one major Elsevier equine veterinary textbook doesn’t even mention “it”. When textbooks do mention “it”, they frame it as a disease of the past, or as a “developing world” problem. But last week it made the news when a donkey wandered out of Mexico and into the United States. He didn’t have a saddle on, but he was carrying a potentially lethal load of bacteria.

This disease is not welcome anywhere in the world “it” goes.

During the US Civil War, General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia lost the service of over 5000 horses when “it” swept through the horse station in Lynchburg. “It” killed 3000 horses there alone.

“It” is glanders, a highly contagious bacterial equine disease that is transmittable from horses to humans and other animals. Caused by Burkholderia mallei, “it” is a disease so ruinous to a concentrated population of horses that historians believe that Germany used “it” to infect the Russian Army’s horses in World War I, and that Japan used “it” against China during World War II. 

During World War I, a German agent working in Maryland was suspected of cultivating anthrax and glanders for the sabotage of horses gathered in Baltimore for export to aid the allied war effort in Europe. However, there is no evidence that the horses actually became ill, if they were indeed injected by dockworkers according to plan.

In spite of its highly contagious nature, and the risk to humans, a vaccine has never been developed for “it”. 

When a horse tested positive for glanders in Germany this winter, it made the news around the world. Cases of glanders are usually found in South America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. “It” affects import and export possibilities for horses in many countries.

If you go looking for research about “it”, you’re more likely to find volumes of research from military sourcs and security advisories than from recent English-language veterinary journals.

But here’s a case of “it” on American soil. The very edge of our soil, to be sure, but on it.

Glanders is a funny-sounding name but it’s a very serious disease. And today “It” is back in the news. Our news.

American military treatment of a horse with glanders in France during World War I.

What happened?

Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC) officials reported today that a group of five Mexican donkeys were rounded up on the US side of the Mexican-American border near Presidio, Texas by a USDA mounted quarantine enforcement inspector. According to protocol, the animals were quarantined and tested for diseases foreign to the United States. 

One of the five donkeys tested positive for glanders.

Étienne-Guillaume La Fosse’s illustrations for treating a horse with glanders are classics of veterinary illustration. His “A treatise upon the true seat of the glanders in horses, together with the method of cure” was published in 1756. (National Library of Medicine archival illustration)

Texas officials have expressed concern before about the risk to US animal health from Mexican animals straying across the border. The TAHC is working closely with USDA personnel in monitoring the situation along the border, and protecting Texas from possible disease threats. 

Presidio, Texas is southeast of El Paso, on the Rio Grande.

“Early detection of glanders and the immediate quarantine of these donkeys was critical in preventing and protecting against the spread of this foreign disease,” Dr. Dee Ellis, State Veterinarian and TAHC Executive Director, said in a press release today.

TAHC’s facts about glanders

Glanders is characterized by the development of ulcerating growths that are most commonly found in the upper respiratory tract, lungs, and skin. Infections are usually fatal. Humans and other animals are also susceptible.

The disease is commonly contracted by consuming food or water contaminated by the nasal discharge of carrier animals. The organism can survive in a contaminated area for more than one year, particularly under humid, wet conditions.

There is no vaccine for glanders. Prevention and control depend on early detection and the elimination of affected animals, as well as complete quarantine.

To learn more:

Glanders in Europe: What You Don’t Know About This Disease Might Kill You (and Your Horse)

Hold Your Horses: Brazil’s Glanders Outbreak Snafus International Show Jumping Circuit

An American waged germ warfare against U.S. in WWI (review of The Fourth Horseman by Robert Koenig)

Medical Aspects of Biological Warfare: (chapter 6: Glanders): (download) US Army Medical Department Center and School, Office of the Surgeon General

Centers for Disease Control Glanders Home Page

OIE report on glanders case in Germany, January 2015 (World Organisation for Animal Health)




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