Glanders, caused by the bacteria Burkholderia mallei, has a long history dating back to ancient times. The disease was first described in horses by Greek and Roman veterinarians. It is believed to have originated in the Middle East and spread during military campaigns and trade routes.
Glanders was a significant concern in the 19th and early 20th centuries, affecting horses and mules used for transportation, agriculture, and warfare.
The first documented case of human glanders was in 1793. Since then, sporadic cases of glanders in humans have been reported, mostly in individuals working with infected animals or regions where the disease is endemic.
It was first used as a bioweapon during World War I, primarily by the German army. At the time, horses were reportedly infected and used to contaminate the clothing, food, and water supplies of enemy forces. The former Soviet Union has also been reported to have used Glanders as a biological weapon of terror in their fight against Afghanistan in 1982-1984.
Glanders can be an effective biological weapon because:
- It is highly contagious; small amounts of the bacteria can quickly transmit the infection to more people.
- The Glanders bacteria, b.mallei, can be easily aerosolized and dispersed as fine particles, which an unsuspecting public can inhale. It can even contaminate public water supplies.
- It has a high fatality rate when untreated. Even when antibiotic therapy is provided, if the infection spreads throughout the body, the death rate is a high 50%.
- Glanders symptoms can take up to five days to appear. During this incubation period, infected individuals who do not know they are sick may spread the disease.
- Glanders in humans is rare, and symptoms may be misdiagnosed, leading to larger outbreaks.
Glanders gets its name from the old French word for glands to signify the swollen lymph nodes under the jawbone (submandibular lymph nodes). Other names for glanders include equinia, droes, malleus, and farcy.