MOLOKAI, HAWAII (KHON2) — Officials said Molokai is dealing with one of the most severe outbreaks of bovine tuberculosis its seen in decades.

Bovine tuberculosis (bTB) is a bacterial disease primarily found in cattle. According to Jason Moniz, veterinary program manager for the animal disease control branch with the Hawaii State Department of Agriculture, the current outbreak is the worst he’s seen in decades years.

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“This is probably the most extensive infection on Molokai that I’ve been involved with for sure,” said Moniz. “I mean, historically they’ve had some pretty significant infections on the East end of Molokai where TB is typically endemic or been endemic on Molokai but it’s a pretty good-sized infection.”

The last outbreak occurred in 1997. A herd of cattle was depopulated after one cow tested positive for bTB but the disease has been found on Molokai since the 1940s. In the 1980s, more than 9,000 thousand were eradicated to control an outbreak.

There are currently six infected herds including pigs, sheep and cattle that were found between June 2021 and March of this year in Central and West Molokai.

Moniz said they don’t even know the extent of the spread. They’re still doing testing.

He said there are only two ways to prevent the spread.

“The choice is either to depopulate or to test and remove,” Moniz said. “To test and remove there has to be multiple tests over a period of about five years. As long as they’re negative at the end of five years, then we could release their quarantine status.”

State Department of Agriculture livestock inspector Gene Ross Davis said bTB is taken seriously because it spreads so easily and can’t be detected without a test unless the animal is severely ill.

“The thing about TB is you don’t know if it’ll pop up, because it takes time for these things to develop in the body to finally show sign.”

Gene Ross Davis, State Department of Agriculture Livestock Inspector

Of the four infected herds, more than 100 pigs and 60 cattle have been depopulated.

There are at least 400 additional cattle that were exposed from two more herds. Moniz said they are considering testing instead of depopulation but the decision isn’t final.

Moniz thinks infected deer and the drought may have caused the outbreak.

“Deer have been known to be reservoirs for bovine tuberculosis,” Moniz said. “Then there’s something that drives them close to livestock, it’s a chance of spread from the deer back to the livestock and I kind of think that’s what happened .”

But he said more testing needs to be done to know for sure.

The Hawaii Department of Agriculture issued an island-wide quarantine for Molokai restricting the movement of all hoofed animals, except horses, to prevent further spread of bTB.

“We don’t want anything to leave Molokai without a permit from us,” Moniz explained. “So we can evaluate whether it’s safe for those animals to leave or not. We don’t want animals leaving with unknown status or infected status, that’s worse.”

“If the infection gets away from us on Molokai, gets to one another island, there’s a good chance that we wouldn’t be able to move livestock, cattle, out of out of the state or even between locations in the state.”

Jason Moniz, HDOA Veterinary Program Manager

That could cripple Hawaii’s cattle industry and have severe economic impacts.

It also puts the community at risk because it can be passed to both humans and pets.

However, it is rare for bTB to be passed on to both humans and pets, according to Kailua Animal Clinic Director Candice Denham.

“Humans can be exposed to this bacteria if they eat undercooked or raw meat and again with unpasteurized milk,” said Denham.

Someone could get it by handling an infected animal, through its secretions or if the animal coughs.

Denham said dogs and cats can also get it.

“If you have an infected herd, then the dog could be potentially susceptible, or if (the dog) ingests the remains of an infected animal.”

According to Denham when a dog is infected, it would likely have respiratory gastrointestinal (GI) tract signs like vomiting, diarrhea and decreased appetite.

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The disease can affect the liver, kidney, cause abscesses and can be fatal.