Buruli ulcers begin like an innocent bug bite – but soon, the flesh-eating bacteria responsible begin to destroy the affected area, which can become gangrenous in a matter of days if left untreated. The bacteria, called Mycobacterium ulcerans, is a familiar foe to the World Health Organization (WHO), having been reported in 33 countries across Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the Western Pacific.
The nasty bug is currently seeing a resurgence in Australia, which has annual outbreaks, but the 2021 outbreak is unusual as – according to a report from ABC News Australia – this is the first time the bacteria has spread locally in a non-coastal part of the country. The highest number of infections appear to be around Victoria, and political figures are urging residents to be mindful of the spread.
“Buruli ulcer is a nasty skin infection caused by a bacteria related to TB. Maybe best not to google images. You've been warned,” wrote Greens MP in the Victorian Parliament Tim Read in a post on Facebook. “The sores begin as a painless bump, usually on exposed skin, which can be mistaken for an insect bite. They progress to a destructive skin ulcer which is sometimes mistaken for skin cancer.” According to Read, genetic analyses have been carried out on samples taken from infected patients, and it seems the mounting cases in Victoria may share a common source – but exactly how it is spreading remains unclear.
A typical infection begins with a localized area of redness and irritation, making early diagnosis trickier given its resemblance to a simple insect bite. The ulcer soon turns for the worse, progressively eating away at the skin, which can get so severe as to expose bone if not treated. A strong course of antibiotics should halt the spread, but it can’t rescue dead tissue, which will need to be cut away by a medical professional to prevent further complications.
M. ulcerans sits in the same (forever unwelcome at parties) family as tuberculosis and leprosy, but is unique in spreading environmentally and producing the mycolactone. According to the WHO, how it spreads to humans remains unknown but one theory centers around possum poop, with several possum species having tested positive for M. ulcerans in the past. Some scientists have suggested that Buruli ulcers may have passed to humans in the same way that COVID-19 and other zoonotic diseases do. Another suggested path employs the help of mosquitos, who contract the illness from coming into contact with possum feces and then pass it on to humans by biting them.
For now, the theory remains just that while ongoing investigations into possum poop (which has tested positive for the bacteria) and mosquitos continue. “There is increasing evidence that mosquitoes play a role in transmission,” wrote Read on Facebook. So reducing mosquito breeding sites and avoiding mosquito bites are both important prevention measures.”
For more information on symptoms and how to seek help visit the Victoria State Government website.