A deadly bacteria with a death rate of around 50% worldwide has made its way to the US Gulf Coast, where it has been declared endemic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC has confirmed three cases of infection with the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei, which can cause life-threatening melioidosis if left untreated.
“It is an environmental organism that lives naturally in the soil and usually in fresh water in some parts of the world. Mainly in subtropical and tropical climates,” Julia Petras, Epidemic Intelligence Officer at the National Center for CDC Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, says HealthDay News.
The most recent case was reported in Mississippi in January.
Two more were confirmed in the same Mississippi county in July 2020 and May 2020.
However, most of those people infected with the bacteria don’t show symptoms and develop antibodies against it, meaning many more people are likely infected, Petras said.
In all three Mississippi cases, the patient recovered.
“It’s one of those diseases that’s also called the great imitator because it can look like a lot of different things,” Petras told the outlet. “It’s vastly under-reported, under-diagnosed and under-recognized – we often like to say it’s the neglected and neglected tropical disease.”
People are usually infected with the bacteria through open wounds or by inhaling the germs during a heavy storm.
People with diabetes or kidney and liver problems are most at risk.
“Excessive alcohol consumption is also a known risk factor, and excessive alcohol consumption has also been associated with cases in endemic areas,” Petras said. THE CDC defines endemic as “a constant amount of that specific disease present in a geographic location, such as a state or country”.
There have been only two reported cases worldwide of the bacteria spreading from person to person.
Once the bacteria is inside the body, it attacks organs like the lungs and brain and any organ with an abscess, Petras said.
“Many patients will have pneumonia with sepsis, and/or sepsis, which is associated with higher mortality and worse outcomes,” she said.
Globally, approximately 160,000 cases are reported each year, with 80,000 deaths.
Petras said it’s important to diagnose melioidosis early so it can be properly treated.
“We have antibiotics that work,” she told HealthDay News. “What I’m talking about are IV antibiotics for at least two weeks, followed by three to six months of oral antibiotics.”
Patients are first treated intravenously with meropenem (Merrem) and ceftazidime (Fortaz). Amoxicillin is then given via pills during the second phase, according to Petras.
“It’s intensive treatment, but if you complete the full course and get diagnosed early, which is really key, your outcome will probably be quite good,” she added.
It’s unclear how or when B. mallei arrived on the Gulf Coast, but scientists believe climate change is likely a factor.
B. mallei thrives in warm, humid areas and was first found in Australia and Thailand, Petras said.