There’s a place in Australia where there’s suddenly a whole bunch of cases of flesh-eating bacteria.
What kind of bacteria is this? Can something like that happen here in the United States?
There is currently an outbreak of a tropical disease called Buruli ulcer, which has been centered along a portion of Australia’s southern coast, more precisely in the serene beachside suburbs of Melbourne’s Mornington Peninsula.
This map shows the different areas with Buruli ulcer in Australia:
Australia has seen occasional cases of the disease since the 1930s. However, since 2017, more than 100 people have been infected with this type of flesh-eating bacteria that is rarely seen in this part of the world.
And Victoria’s recent outbreak has mystified researchers over the past few years, particularly regarding its source and how the disease is being spread.
What is Buruli Ulcer?
The little-known illness is caused by a pathogen known as a mycobacterium (Mycobacterium ulcerans).
It’s named for Buruli county in Uganda, which is where scientists first identified the collection of symptoms as a specific condition.
Once the bacterium enters the skin, it releases a unique toxin known as mycolactone and begins breaking down and consuming flesh, leaving painful and debilitating wounds that can be disfiguring if left untreated.
The bacterium not only damages the tissues it inhabits, but also is able to prevent the immune system from mounting a defense.
That’s the same genus of microorganisms that cause tuberculosis and leprosy, among other illnesses.
Buruli Ulcer symptoms
Buruli ulcer usually begins quietly, often with a small and painless raised lesion, a patch of thickened skin or an area of swelling just below the skin.
Within the next four or five weeks, the organisms create a wound that, if left untreated, will grow in size.
Although damage is usually limited to the skin and the tissues just below the skin, in some cases the bone can be affected, which can lead to deformities.
About half of cases of Buruli ulcer are found on the lower limbs, about one-third appear on the arms and the rest develop in other regions of the body. How the disease is transmitted is not yet known.
In its early stages, the condition is occasionally mistaken for boils, fatty tumors known as lipomas or a fungal infection. The disease is treated with a combination of several different antibiotics and wound care.
Several of the people in Australia who became infected with the mycobacterium initially thought the resulting nodules were insect bites.
Buruli ulcer outbreak in Australia
Buruli ulcers have been found extensively in the hotspot area’s ringtail possum population, with traces of the bacteria found in their droppings.
However, it is not yet certain how the disease is transferred to humans. Professor Stinear’s theory is that the pathogen can be transmitted through mosquito bites, although a definitive link is yet to be established.
While reported cases of Australian Buruli ulcers have declined in 2020, the Buruli ulcer remains a global health issue, with high case numbers in West and Central African countries.
Buruli ulcer in the US
Buruli ulcer has been identified in 33 different countries, but historically has been most common in certain tropical regions of west and central Africa.
As for whether or not the disease can become a problem in the U.S., it’s unlikely. Only a few cases have been reported here over the years, and each was linked to travel in a region where the organism that causes the disease is regularly found.
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