What is Melioidosis? Symptoms and Treatment

A DEADLY tropical virus attacking the brain is causing new concern worldwide.

Melioidosis is considered one of the most dangerous infections out there – but what is it and how common are cases?
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Melioidosis is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei


Melioidosis is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomalleiCredit: Getty

Concern about the bug has been fueled by a series of cases in the US.

Four cases have been discovered in Georgia, Kansas, Minnesota and Texas, two of which have resulted in death.

About a dozen cases of melioidosis related to international travel are found in the states each year.

But the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are baffled that the most recent cases haven’t been abroad.

The disease is caused by insects that occur naturally in some parts of the world with tropical climates such as Southeast Asia – Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore – and Northern Australia.

But experts say melioidosis is of “high public health importance” and is likely to increase in global cases due to international travel.

A newspaper last October warned that the disease is “significantly underdiagnosed” and largely “neglected”.

According to the authors led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, there have been 46 cases in the UK between 2010 and 2019.

They wrote that there has been an “increasing incidence of melioidosis imported into the UK” compared to the past, but many cases are not formally reported.

Infected people have often returned from Thailand, India and Nigeria.

What is Melioidosis?

Melioidosis is an infectious disease caused by the bacteria Burkholderia pseudomallei.

The bug is found in contaminated water and soil.

It has the potential to spread to areas where it is not normally found, and is considered a potential “biological weapon,” the CDC says.

What are the symptoms of? melioidosis?

Symptoms of melioidosis vary because there are different types of the disease.

It usually causes a lung infection, with symptoms of fever, headache, loss of appetite, cough, shortness of breath, and chest pain.

A localized infection of the skin can lead to abscesses, swelling and ulcers.

If melioidosis enters the blood, it can cause fever, headache, breathlessness, stomach pain, joint pain and disorientation.

This can develop into life-threatening blood poisoning, which is common in patients with melioidosis.

In the most chronic cases, the infection can spread through the skin and blood and to the heart, brain, liver, kidneys, joints and eyes – the so-called disseminated infection.

Melioidosis may initially be mistaken for other diseases due to the wide range of symptoms.

It usually takes two to four weeks for symptoms to appear after a person is exposed, which also makes it difficult for health leaders to track where it’s coming from.

How is melioidosis spread?

The main way people contract melioidosis is through contact with the contaminated source.

The bug can invade a person’s skin if they touch contaminated soil while having cuts on their skin.

People can also get it by inhaling contaminated dust or water droplets, the CDC says.

But it’s “very rare” for someone to catch it from another person.

How serious is it? melioidosis?

Melioidosis is known to have a high mortality rate.

Between 10 and 50 percent of people who get it die, compared to less than one percent of people who get the flu.

Anyone can get melioidosis. However, those with underlying ill health are most at risk.

The CDC has warned that kidney disease, diabetes and excessive alcohol consumption can increase the risk of serious illness.

Other vulnerable people include those with liver disease, chronic lung infections such as cystic fibrosis and COPD, and those with a condition that suppresses their immune system, such as cancer.

Of the 46 cases seen in the UK over a decade, 16 required intensive care.

Patients in the UK have had cystic fibrosis, renal failure and type 2 diabetes.

The Cystic Fibrosis Trust in the UK has developed specific guidelines on melioidosis for patients planning to travel to melioidosis-endemic areas.

Can melioidosis be treated?

Although up to half of people infected with melioidosis may die, it can be treated with the use of appropriate medication.

The first doctors give antibiotics through an IV that can last for several weeks.

Oral antibiotics should then be taken for several months.

How to prevent melioidosis?

People most likely to come into contact with melioidosis are:

  • military personnel
  • workers in construction, agriculture, fishing and forestry
  • adventurous travelers

These people are advised to take extra precautions, such as wearing protective clothing while working.

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