Sicilians infected by cow disease

INVESTIGATORS IN Sicily believe the Mafia is behind an unexplained rise in cases of the animal disease brucellosis among humans.

A report in La Repubblica newspaper said Cosa Nostra is marketing a vaccine that prevents cows with the bacterial disease from testing positive. The undetected sick animals are passing the bacterium on to humans by direct contact or through dairy products.

The probe began when magistrates noted a steady increase in cases of brucellosis in humans while the frequency of the disease in animals was declining. The number of animals identified with the disease dropped from 4 per cent in 1996 to 2.5 per cent in 1998. Yet compared to the 748 human cases in 1996, last year's figures are expected to be above 1,000.

Sicily accounts for nearly half of those suffering from the illness. As well as farmers and vets, traditionally at risk, others often pick it up by eating unpasteurised cheeses such as ricotta, a staple of local cuisine. The disease, though not fatal, causes high fever, drenching sweats, weakness and depression and, in severe cases, can lead to pneumonia.

Police believe a vaccine, known as RB51, is now freely available on the black market and that Cosa Nostra is marketing it hard, capitalising on farmers anxious not to destroy sick beasts. The vaccine camouflages the bacteria, making them invisible in regular screening of herds.

La Repubblica also offers an explanation as to why the Mafia is pushing the vaccine. Until recently, the Sicilian government reimbursed farmers for any beasts that had to be put down. The payments have now stopped. Although its activities now span the globe, the roots of Cosa Nostra are rural. Most of the main clans, especially the fierce Corleonesi, still have their bases in the countryside and control vast tracts of farmland near Palermo.

When the "mad cow" scare first broke in Europe, there was concern the Mafia might exploit the crisis and sell infected meat in Italy. The only case of the disease detected in Italy was in Sicily in 1994. The infected animals, which had come from Britain were supposed to be destroyed.

However, when the local authorities were slow in providing compensation, the farmer, who had a record of involvement with the Mafia, reported the beasts lost.