A newly engaged Dutch couple are undergoing a lengthy treatment after contracting the rare brucellosis infection while holidaying in Gozo.

Brucellosis – or Malta fever as it is also known – is contracted by humans who come in contact with infected animals or their milk. The condition is very rare, with the last known case in Malta being an imported one detected in 2003.

Speaking to Times of Malta less than a month since his trip to Malta, Frans van Rumpt described how, together with his fiancée, he fell ill soon after returning home from his holiday.

Suffering fever, lethargy and diarrhea, van Rumpt rushed to his doctor, who dismissed brucellosis as the condition is extremely rare. The couple had eaten an unpasteurised cheeselet from a restaurant in Gozo, van Rumpt said, and so when the symptoms worsened, he insisted the couple get tested for the infection.

Blood results some days later confirmed his suspicions and the couple are now undergoing treatment for the rare infection.

“I am looking at six weeks of antibiotics now, but in a way I was lucky. That is because the incubation period of brucellosis can be anywhere between seven days to seven months. Many other people – Maltese and tourists – might get sick months from now and have no idea what is hitting them. This is truly a serious matter,” he told Times of Malta.

While the couple admit they were informed by the waiter the cheeselet was homemade with unpasteurised milk, they trusted the restaurant to take all the necessary precautions to avoid using infected products, van Rumpt said.

“We enjoyed a wonderful holiday in Gozo and Malta. We rented a villa with a few other friends, explored the islands and were especially delighted by the unspoiled island of Gozo. We loved the food, the sun, the hospitality of the people, in short it was an amazing holiday. I even proposed to my girlfriend on a Gozitan hilltop overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and she said yes! We were over the moon!

“But this experience has somewhat marred the memories we have. We wanted to speak out in case others might be suffering the same symptoms,” van Rumpt said.

What the restaurant says 

When contacted, the restaurant spokesperson said this was the first time it had heard of the case and was not aware of any other similar instances of the infection.

“At this stage, all we can tell you is that all our livestock are registered and vaccinated, and we consume our own products daily and never had such issues. However, we are taking this report very seriously. We are in touch with the authorities, took preventive measures as instructed, and we have invited the veterinarians to our farm to make any necessary inspections and tests,” the spokesperson said.

This experience has somewhat marred the memories we have. We wanted to speak out in case others might be suffering the same symptoms

The restaurant’s farm, the spokesperson said, is inspected at least twice a year, with frequency of the visits being determined by the Veterinary Regulation Directorate.

“We had one on February 8, 2022. Then, on October 3, officers came again to take blood samples. We never had any reports of infected animals.

 “Due to the report we received yesterday, we will have a visit on Monday,” the spokesperson said.

What health authorities say

Meanwhile, public health chief Charmaine Gauci has confirmed the authorities are investigating the case and have also contacted van Rumpt for more details on the case.

According to Gauci, the infection is extremely rare and Malta has not detected any cases since 2003. In that case, the infection had been imported by a foreigner arriving in Malta.

Before that, there had been a small outbreak in 1995 as a result of the consumption of an infected batch of cheeselets.

Gauci assured that every report is taken “very seriously” and the health authorities work hand in hand with the Veterinary Directorate in order to ensure farms are regularly inspected and animals are tested.

In the case of one infected animal, Gauci said, the entire flock has to be culled.

What is brucellosis?

Brucellosis – also known as Mediterranean or Malta fever - is an infection caused by brucella bacteria. The strain that may infect humans also infects cattle, dogs, sheep, goats and pigs.

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), brucellosis occurs worldwide but the Mediterranean region has been particularly affected. Humans become infected by direct or indirect contact with animals or with contaminated animal products (including unpasteurised milk and dairy products) or by the inhalation of aerosols.

After an incubation period of five to 60 days, symptoms may appear either acutely or insidiously. Untreated, the disease may become chronic, the ECDC says.

The various symptoms are both general (fever, weakness, joint pain) and organ-specific (including infections in the brain and heart valves). Prolonged antibiotic treatment is usually effective.

Untreated, brucellosis can lead to death.

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