A deadly bacteria that kills up to 50 percent of people it infects has now been listed as endemic along the US gulf coast.
Dr Julia Petras, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who made the warning, said Burkholderia pseudomallei was now likely lurking in soil and stagnant water across the 1,600 miles from Texas to Florida.
People infected with the bacteria suffer melioidosis, a severe condition that can trigger pneumonia and sepsis and can be fatal.
Doctors are now on alert for the disease, which can initially be misdiagnosed as another infection.
The CDC declaration comes less than a year after it was detected in the US for the first time in soil from the Mississippi coast.
The above map shows countries where the bacteria has been detected and the states in the US where the CDC says it is now endemic
People infected with the bacteria can suffer from the disease melioidosis, which can trigger pneumonia and sepsis. The CDC says it is fatal in 10 to 50 percent of cases (stock image)
Dr Petras said: ‘It’s estimated that there’s probably 160,000 cases a year around the world and 80,000 deaths.
‘This is one of those diseases that is also called the great mimicker because it can look like a lot of different things.
‘It’s greatly under-reported and under-diagnosed and under-recognized — we often like to say that it’s been the neglected tropical disease.’
The bacteria — also known as B. psuedomallei — is native to tropical areas in South East Asia and northern Australia.
But the CDC is now warning it has been identified in the gulf states: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
In these areas, the agency warns it may be lurking in topsoil or muddy fresh or brackish water.
People can become infected after coming into contact with the water or soil — including through open wounds — or ingesting it.
It is unclear how the pathogen arrived in the United States, although this may have traveled by infected travelers.
The deadly bacteria has been present in Puerto Rico since 1982, according to an Oxford University-backed study.
About 12 Americans are struck down by the bacteria every year, estimates suggest, although they are normally linked to foreign travel.
This is thought to be a major underestimate because many cases are misdiagnosed as other conditions.
Four cases were recorded in the US — including two deaths — in 2021, with cases later linked to a contaminated aromatherapy spray imported from India.
Another two were detected in 2020 and 2022 in unrelated individuals who lived near each other in Mississippi.
This prompted the CDC to take soil and water samples from within and around the patients’ homes, revealing the presence of the bacteria B. pseudomallei. Both patients recovered from the infection.
Dr Petras, who is an epidemic intelligence service officer, said: ‘It is an environmental organism that lives naturally in the soil, and typically freshwater, in certain areas around the world — mostly subtropical and tropical climates.
‘A lot of patients will have pneumonia with sepsis, and/or sepsis, which is associated with higher mortality and worse outcomes.’
She added: ‘We have antibiotics that work.
‘What I’m talking about is IV antibiotics for at least two weeks, followed by three to six months of oral antibiotics.
‘It’s an extensive treatment, but if you’ve finished the full course and you’re diagnosed early, which is the really key thing, your outcome is probably going to be quite good.’
Humans can become infected with the bacteria via contact with contaminated soil and muddy water, particularly if they have an open wound.
In rare cases, it can also be transmitted between humans — although this has only been reported via sexual contact and during pregnancy.
In most cases, the bacteria do not trigger symptoms because the immune system can to fight it off.
But when an infection begins, patients may suffer from symptoms including joint pain, fever and headaches in the early stages.
This can then progress to melioidosis, with the CDC warning that between 10 and 50 percent of cases are fatal.
Individuals who live along the gulf coast and have conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease and chronic lung disease are particularly at risk.
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