Scientists in Australia warn of 'rapidly worsening epidemic' of flesh-eating ulcer

Lester Mason
April 16, 2018

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.

An epidemic of the flesh-eating bacteria infection Buruli ulcers is worsening in Australia, and as infection rates continue to rise, experts are struggling to pinpoint the cause.

The bacteria that causes the ulcers attaches to its host and causes "severe destructive lesions of skin and soft tissue, resulting in significant morbidity", the report states.

"Our hypothesis is really that this is a disease of possums", said Paul Johnson, a Victoria-based Buruli ulcer expert, The Guardian reported.

Until a few years ago, infections were more commonly reported from tropical regions in Queensland with occasional cases in other states.

"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.

Researchers also know the organism behind it: Mycobacterium ulcerans, which is from the same family of bacteria that causes leprosy and tuberculosis.

It was unclear why the ulcer, typically found in tropical areas, had emerged in the temperate climate of Victoria, he said.


In 2017, 2,206 cases were reported globally, compared with 1,920 cases in 2016, with Australia and Nigeria reporting the most cases. The authors say it is yet to be determined what the natural source of the ulcer is, how it is transmitted to humans, what role possums play and why the disease is increasing in Victoria. In some cases, it can also affect bone, causing "gross deformities", according to the WHO.

According to World Health Organization, treatment consists of a combination of antibiotics and complementary treatments.

"Novel antibiotics or targeted antitoxin treatments are required, as wound infection is a serious problem for thousands of patients with chronic wounds", he said previous year.

The demographic effects vary considerably across affected regions, with an estimated 48% of those affected in Africa under the age of 15, while just 10% affected are under that age in Australia.

"It's a pretty frightening explosion in case numbers", Dr O'Brien, an associate professor from the University of Melbourne, said.

One theory is that the disease is spread by mosquitoes or aquatic insects.

However, the study notes that the risk of infection "appears to be seasonal, with an increased risk in the warmer months".

Patients may also need plastic surgery and frequent hospital admissions.

Other reports by Iphone Fresh

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