Alaska Fish and Game warn of increased prevalence of bacteria in caribou

While Brucella is not uncommon in other herds, it is unusual to find it in the Mulchatna herd.
While Brucella is not uncommon in other herds, it is unusual to find it in the Mulchatna herd.(Department of Fish and Game | KTVF)
Published: Jan. 29, 2021 at 4:18 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is warning of increased prevalence of the bacteria called Brucella in Mulchatna caribou.

Brucella suis biovar 4, also known as Brucella, is a bacteria that is endemic to Alaskan caribou herds.

“But it can flare up to an epidemic, which people are familiar with those terms right now. It’s a disease that’s always been there in caribou in Alaska, but at times it can rise to a higher level that can impact a population and increase the risk of exposure to people - and it is a disease that people can get. It usually causes a fever that goes up and down but it can get quite serious,” said Dr. Kimberlee Beckmen, Wildlife Health Veterinarian Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

While Brucella is not uncommon to caribou herds in the Western Arctic, the rise in prevalence in the Mulchatna caribou herds is strange.

Dr. Beckmen explained, “What’s unusual here is the Mulchatna caribou have an increased number of animals that are showing antibodies and showing signs of disease, and this is a herd that we don’t normally see Brucella in. So we thought maybe the hunters and people that live in that area are not as aware of Brucella, and taking the precautions that hunters in the Western Arctic and Teshekpuk do.”

There are physical signs that can help identify if a caribou is infected with the bacteria.

“For caribou this particular disease almost always shows up as a big swollen bump on the front knee - really distinct, large - but it can also happen on the back leg in the hock area. Also it affects the testicles, so the scrotum on the animal might be enlarged and the testicles might be abnormal, and you wouldn’t want to eat those tissues at all. You don’t want to cut into those organs,” said Dr. Beckmen.

The rest of the caribou meat is safe to eat as long as it hasn’t been contaminated.

“The main one is to be careful not to cut into any swollen joints or abscesses or things that looked diseased, because that can have a lot of the bacteria there and then contaminate the meat. So whenever butchering a caribou or any wildlife, you want to have really good meat hygiene - meaning wearing gloves, and then washing all your knives and cutting boards and things after processing, and washing with soap and water to get them clean, and also to cook the meat. The practice of eating things like raw bone marrow is a risk for getting Brucella because there’s a lot of bacteria in that bone marrow, and it’s also in lymph nodes and things in the meat that people might not notice. So it’s really important to cook all the meat,” said Dr. Beckmen.

The bacteria can last for years inside of frozen meat, so any caribou caught within the last few years must be thoroughly cooked to avoid infection from the bacteria.

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