Human Mycobacterium bovis infection in the United Kingdom: Incidence, risks, control measures and review of the zoonotic aspects of bovine tuberculosis

Tuberculosis (Edinb). 2006 Mar;86(2):77-109. doi: 10.1016/ Epub 2005 Oct 28.


Amongst the members of the Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex (MTBC), M. tuberculosis is mainly a human pathogen, whereas M. bovis has a broad host range and is the principal agent responsible for tuberculosis (TB) in domestic and wild mammals. M. bovis also infects humans, causing zoonotic TB through ingestion, inhalation and, less frequently, by contact with mucous membranes and broken skin. Zoonotic TB is indistinguishable clinically or pathologically from TB caused by M. tuberculosis. Differentiation between the causative organisms may only be achieved by sophisticated laboratory methods involving bacteriological culture of clinical specimens, followed by typing of isolates according to growth characteristics, biochemical properties, routine resistance to pyrazinamide (PZA) and specific non-commercial nucleic acid techniques. All this makes it difficult to accurately estimate the proportion of human TB cases caused by M. bovis infection, particularly in developing countries. Distinguishing between the various members of the MTBC is essential for epidemiological investigation of human cases and, to a lesser degree, for adequate chemotherapy of the human TB patient. Zoonotic TB was formerly an endemic disease in the UK population, usually transmitted to man by consumption of raw cows' milk. Human infection with M. bovis in the UK has been largely controlled through pasteurization of cows' milk and systematic culling of cattle reacting to compulsory tuberculin tests. Nowadays the majority of the 7000 cases of human TB annually reported in the UK are due to M. tuberculosis acquired directly from an infectious person. In the period 1990-2003, between 17 and 50 new cases of human M. bovis infection were confirmed every year in the UK. This represented between 0.5% and 1.5% of all the culture-confirmed TB cases, a proportion similar to that of other industrialized countries. Most cases of zoonotic TB diagnosed in the UK are attributed to (i) reactivation of long-standing latent infections acquired before widespread adoption of milk pasteurization, or (ii) M. bovis infections contracted abroad. Since 1990, only one case has been documented in the UK of confirmed, indigenous human M. bovis infection recently acquired from an animal source. Therefore, for the overwhelming majority of the population, the risk of contracting M. bovis infection from animals appears to be extremely low. However, bovine TB is once again a major animal health problem in the UK. Given the increasing numbers of cattle herds being affected each year, physicians and other public health professionals must remember that zoonotic TB is not just a disease of the past. A significant risk of M. bovis infection remains in certain segments of the UK population in the form of (i) continuing on-farm consumption of unpasteurized cows' milk, (ii) retail sales by approved establishments of unpasteurized milk and dairy products and (iii) occupational exposure to infectious aerosols from tuberculous animals and their carcases.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cattle
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Disease Notification / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Meat / microbiology
  • Milk / microbiology
  • Occupational Diseases / epidemiology
  • Occupational Diseases / prevention & control
  • Risk Factors
  • Tuberculosis / diagnosis
  • Tuberculosis, Bovine / diagnosis
  • Tuberculosis, Bovine / epidemiology*
  • Tuberculosis, Bovine / prevention & control
  • Tuberculosis, Bovine / transmission
  • United Kingdom / epidemiology
  • Zoonoses