A bacterium that causes a deadly tropical disease called meliodosis, sometimes known as Whitmore's disease, has been detected in water and soil in the United States, officials have announced. While we cannot known how widespread the bacterium, Burkholderia pseudomallei, may be at this time, we can no longer assume that it is confined to the tropics. We also don't know how long the pathogen has been in the United States. Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have said that it can now probably be found along the Gulf coast, since conditions there are conducive to its growth.
The pathogen was discovered after two people in Mississippi were sickened with meliodosis, the first in July 2020 and the second in May 2022. These individuals lived close to one another, and had no history of international travel. Though both were hospitalized, antibiotics relieved their infections. The same bacterial strain was identified in both patients.
The CDC has alerted clinicians to be on the lookout for this disease when people present with symptoms, which can include coughing, headaches, joint pain, breathing difficulties, and fever. While antibiotics typically eliminate the infection, it has to be caught early. Cases that go untreated may lead to pneumonia or blood infections, which can be fatal.
While people in the United States have gotten meliodosis before, these individuals have typically traveled to other parts of the world such as South America or Australia, where they likely picked up the bug and brought it home. There are about twelve cases in the US every year. Anywhere from five to fifty people might get the disease every year in Australia. Southeast Asian countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have the highest burden; about 165,000 people are thought to be infected annually, and 44 percent of cases occur in Southeast Asia.
Now, the bacterium that causes meliodosis is in the United States. “Once it’s in the soil, it can be a health threat for people in the area,” said Julia Petras, a CDC official who oversaw an investigation into this situation.
The CDC is advising anyone who may be living or visiting coastal Mississippi to be cautious and protect cuts, burns, or open wounds with bandages that are waterproof. People should avoid muddy water, and should not drink from ponds, lakes, rivers, shallow wells, or streams, especially if they have underlying medical conditions, they added. Seek medical attention if you experience melioidosis symptoms.