Published: Mon, April 16, 2018
Medical | By Johnnie Horton

Flesh-eating bacteria epidemic spreading in southern Australia

Flesh-eating bacteria epidemic spreading in southern Australia

"It is hard to prevent a disease when it is not known how infection is acquired", the experts said in the journal article.

The disease can be treated with several weeks of antibiotics, though in severe cases, it can destroy muscle tissue and cause permanent disability or amputation.

Although the disease has been acknowledged to exist in the state since 1948, very little progress has been made in curtailing the bacterium simply because we actually know very little about it. It's also often referred to as the Buruli ulcer or the Daintree ulcer because it occurs in parts of north Queensland.

In Australia's Victoria state, the number of cases jumped from under 50 in 2005 to nearly 250 a year ago - with the number having risen significantly in 2016 and 2017. It has been reported in 33 countries in Africa, Asia, the Western Pacific, and South America, according to the World Health Organization.

Once it infects its host, M. ulcerans - belonging to the same genus as leprosy and tuberculosis - produces a unique toxin which both causes tissue damage and inhibits the immune system's ability to deal with it.

Recently, however, the authors explain that there's been a "worsening epidemic, defined by cases rapidly increasing in number" in southeastern Victoria, a temperate part of the country.

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There have been no reported cases in New South Wales, South Australia or Tasmania; the three states closest to Victoria.

"It is hard to prevent a disease when it is not known how infection is acquired", write the authors, led by Dr. Daniel O'Brien, an associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of Melbourne.

The team emphasizes that "efforts to control the disease have been severely hampered because the environmental reservoir and mode of transmission to humans remain unknown".

The disease is believed to spread through mosquitoes, or through the faeces of possums that have been bitten by mosquitoes. Victorian health authorities say they have spent more than A$1m (£550,000; $780,000) on researching the disease, and have started education campaigns to raise awareness about it.

"... It is only when we are armed with this critical knowledge that we can hope to halt the devastating impact of this disease".

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