A temporary departure from the Worms & Germs conventional companion animal theme!

In 1894, HA Johne and L Frothingham discovered a tiny bacterium that was later found to be the cause of a disease in cattle characterized by chronic and severe weight loss and diarrhea. The condition ultimately became known as Johne’s disease, and it has been a thorn in the side of even very well-run dairy farms ever since. The disease is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium avium subsp. paratuberculosis (or MAP for short), which is in the same group as the bacterium that causes tuberculosis (TB). These bacteria typically live inside cells (usually white blood cells), and can therefore hide from the body’s immune system, which makes them hard to kill, even with antibiotics. It can also make them hard to detect. In cattle, the bacteria hang out in the lymph nodes and lymph tissue in and around the end of the small intestine (parts of the cow that do not enter the human food chain). The body’s attempts to kill the bacteria over time lead to chronic inflammation, which interferes with the ability of the animal to absorb nutrients from the intestine. This eventually leads to weight loss and diarrhea, even though the cow still eats.  The disease also occurs in sheep and goats.

Yes, cows with Johne’s can still produce milk, and even before they’re sick MAP can sometimes be found in the stool and milk. On July 7, 2008, the CBC National ran a story about the possible link between Johne’s disease in cattle and Crohn’s disease in people. This is a very controversial topic, and arguments both for and against a relationship between bovine MAP and Crohn’s disease have been reviewed. There are even cases of Crohn’s that were thought to have been cured by the consumption of raw milk, which is more likely to contain live MAP bacteria (and potentially a lot of other bacteria most people shouldn’t be drinking). It’s also clear that there are genetic and environmental factors that affect whether or not a person will develop Crohn’s disease. It’s a very complicated picture, but I don’t find there’s enough evidence at this point that people need to start boycotting milk and dairy products for fear of Crohn’s disease. For now, I’d say cook your meat well, wash your hands, avoid cattle manure whenever possible, and stick to pasteurized dairy products, but don’t be afraid to enjoy a cheeseburger and a glass of milk on a beautiful summer afternoon :)

Cattle (both beef and dairy) are usually infected with Mycobacterium avium subsp. paratuberculosis (or MAP for short) as newborns, but it may take 2 to 10 years to develop any signs of Johne’s disease. The condition is essentially impossible to treat in cattle, so efforts have focused on trying to prevent young animals from becoming infected in the first place.

The Canadian cattle industry is actively addressing the problem of Johne’s disease through the Johne’s Disease Prevention Project. At the moment, Johne’s control programs are still voluntary in Canada, but more and more farms are getting on board.  It’s a long, slow process that takes years, but eventually the disease can be eliminated from the herd. Whether or not eliminating Johne’s disease from cattle may have an impact on the occurrence of Crohn’s disease in consumers remains unknown, but it certainly won’t hurt. Regardless, being Johne’s free is better for the farm, and better for the cattle.

For more information on Crohn’s disease, check out the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of Canada website.