The bacteria that causes melioidosis, a life-threatening disease, was first discovered on US soil, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announcement (opens in a new tab) Wednesday (July 27).
Historically, the bacteriacalled Burkholderia pseudomallei, has been observed primarily in Southeast Asia and northern Australia, where most cases of melioidosis occur each year, although the bacteria can also be found in parts of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Central and South America. In an average year, only about 12 cases of melioidosis occur in the United States, and these cases can usually be related to international travel to a country where B. pseudomallei commonly grows, or to contaminated imported products. For example, in 2021, two people became ill and two others died after using a imported aromatherapy spray contaminated with bacteria.
But now health officials have detected the bacteria in soil and water samples taken from the Gulf Coast region of southern Mississippi.
“Once firmly established in the ground, B. pseudomallei cannot be removed from the ground,” the CDC said in its health advisory. “Public health efforts should focus primarily on improving case identification so that appropriate treatment can be administered.
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The CDC has begun testing Mississippi soil and water to B. pseudomallei after two unrelated people in the area fell ill with melioidosis, the disease caused by B. pseudomallei which can have a wide range of symptoms and is fatal in almost half of the cases diagnosed worldwide. The melioidosis cases occurred two years apart, in July 2020 and May 2022, and neither person had traveled outside the United States prior to infection.
Both patients had to be hospitalized after developing an intense immune reaction (sepsis) due to pneumonia, and both recovered after being treated with antibiotics. Genetic testing revealed that both patients had been infected with the same strain of B. pseudomallei.
With patients’ permission, the CDC and the Mississippi State Department of Health collected soil, water, and plants from household products, properties, and nearby areas they frequented. Soil and puddle water taken from the 2020 patient’s property tested positive for a genetically similar B. pseudomallei strain to the one that the two patients caught.
Based on these findings, the CDC concluded that “environmental bacteria were the likely source of infection for both individuals and have been present in the area since at least 2020.”
People can be infected with B. pseudomallei when bacteria come into contact with an open cut or abrasion in the skin. They can also become infected by inhaling contaminated water droplets or bits of dust, ingesting contaminated water droplets, or eating food grown in contaminated soil.
In regions where B. pseudomallei is widespread and people are often exposed, most healthy people who come into contact with the bacteria never develop melioidosis, the CDC noted; in other words, exposure to the bacteria does not always lead to disease. However, people with weakened immune systems, Diabetescancer, the hereditary blood disease, thalassemia, and liverkidney or lung disease have a higher risk of becoming ill and dying as a result of exposure. Excessive alcohol consumption also increases the risk of severe melioidosis, according to the CDC.
Melioidosis can cause a wide range of symptoms, including fever, localized pain or swelling, ulcers, abscesses on the skin and in different organs, cough, chest pain, respiratory distress, weight loss , abdominal discomfort, muscle and joint pain, disorientation, headache. and seizures. Lung infections can lead to pneumonia and bloodstream infections can lead to septic shock, Live Science previously reported. Worldwide, about 10% to 50% of diagnosed melioidosis cases result in death, according to the CDC.
If you live in or visit the Mississippi Gulf Coast, especially if you have any of the medical conditions listed above, the CDC recommends taking the following precautions to protect yourself:
- Avoid contact with the ground or muddy water, especially after heavy rains.
- Use waterproof dressings to prevent open wounds, cuts or burns from coming into contact with the ground or water. If open wounds, cuts or burns come into contact with soil, wash them thoroughly.
- If you have diabetes, pay attention to foot care and avoid contamination of foot wounds or other open wounds. Wear shoes and use gloves when gardening or working outdoors (for example, when doing garden work or agricultural work).
- If you work or play outdoors, wear waterproof boots during and after a flood or storm, which can prevent foot and lower leg infection.
- See your doctor or go to the emergency room if you are sick and have signs or symptoms of melioidosis. It can be treated with antibiotics that your doctor can prescribe.
- If you are diagnosed with melioidosis, be sure to take all antibiotics prescribed by your doctor.
- Drink clean water; do not drink water that comes directly from shallow wells, lakes, rivers, ponds and streams.
Originally posted on Live Science.