Breaking the taboos of bovine TB

The bovine form of TB is very rare in humans, but the symptoms and treatment are similar to human TB

"I couldn't understand why I didn't feel well... I stumbled about, I generally felt very ill, I was losing weight, everything was going wrong."

Instead of getting better after a fall in 2007, Shropshire councillor Elizabeth Yeomans just became more and more unwell.

It was another two years before she finally discovered the cause - she had bovine tuberculosis (bTB) which she had contracted by drinking unpasteurised milk as a child.

Mrs Yeomans, former leader of Bridgnorth District Council, said it was "exceedingly debilitating" and at times she was so poorly she could not walk.

Typically TB is treated with drugs for six to nine months, but according to Mrs Yeomans she had to have treatment for a lot longer: "The treatment really is pretty dreadful... within half an hour of me having it, if I didn't get back to bed I would pass out.

'Saps strength'

"I've fallen up by the Aga, by the sink, along by the chairs, going upstairs... basically all the time I was on the drugs, which was well over 12 months, I was really very poorly.

"It just saps all your strength. Now I realise when they say TB is a debilitating disease. I can assure you it certainly is."

Mrs Yeomans, who has lived on a farm in Chelmarsh with her husband for the past 46 years, recalls the moment when she was given the results of a biopsy in 2009: "I can still see myself sitting with the specialist and he said: 'How did you get here?

'You're very ill you know... and you must go immediately for treatment.'"

The bovine form of TB is very rare in humans, but the symptoms and treatment are similar to human TB.

At the time Mrs Yeomans continued with her work as leader of Bridgnorth District Council but admitted she was only able to cope with a lot of support.

Growing up in a farming community, drinking unpasteurised milk was commonplace for Mrs Yeomans.

"It takes some believing... I didn't know that you could have what is called latent TB, which is TB lying dormant in your body, through having unpasteurised milk."

Asked how people would react to news of her illness, Mrs Yeomans' husband Bill said they found it "weird".

Mrs Yeomans said: "Some people think you should keep a bit quiet about it, but I can't be ashamed of it, can I?"

She has now recovered and is publishing a book called Life Beyond TB which documents her own illness and her husband's survival of a double triple heart bypass.

According to the tuberculosis charity TB Alert, 9,000 people contract TB in Britain every year. Of those about 60 are of the bovine form.

The disease is spread through the air when a person with untreated TB coughs or sneezes.

Weight loss

Peter Davies, secretary of TB Alert and a recently retired consultant chest physician, said the chance of humans catching bovine TB in Britain was "vanishingly small".

He added that the vast majority of TB patients recover from the disease.

Commenting on the time it takes to diagnose TB, Mr Davies said: "TB has been increasing in this country over the past 25 years.

"I would have hoped that the message would have got round by now to GPs and hospital doctors that your next patient may have TB."

He added that two-thirds of TB patients in Britain have origins in India and Africa.

According to Mr Davies, anyone who has had a cough for more than three weeks, together with rapid weight loss and night sweats, should go to a GP and ask for a chest X-ray.

"TB can mimic any disease in the book because it can hit anybody, at any age, in any part of the body."

BBC News

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Published: Aug. 16, 2011, 9:09 p.m.

Last updated: Aug. 16, 2011, 9:41 p.m.

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