A dangerous soil bacterium has been identified in Mississippi. How worried should Louisiana be? | Healthcare/Hospitals

Earlier this week, the Gulf Coast made headlines across the country after the first-ever discovery of a rare bacteria in Mississippi. The bacteria can cause an infectious disease called melioidosis that can be fatal for some people.

Two unrelated people living near each other on the Mississippi coast were diagnosed with melioidosis two years apart in 2020 and 2022, prompting health officials to test household products, soil and water in and around the residents’ homes. Three samples from soil and pond water tested positive for bacteria. Both patients were hospitalized with sepsis due to pneumonia and both recovered after treatment with antibiotics.

Here’s what you need to know.

What is melioidosis?

Melioidosis is an infectious disease caused by a bacterium called Burkholderia pseudomallei. It is a very persistent bacterium that lives in soil and freshwater and is typically found in Southeast Asia and northern Australia. “Some people know it as rice farmer’s disease,” said David Wagner, a disease ecologist at Northern Arizona University who studies the bacteria extensively.

“It’s common in rice fields,” Wagner said. “If their feet are amputated and they work barefoot in the rice fields, they can be vaccinated that way.”

How is it transmitted?

As seen in many soldiers during the Vietnam War, the bacterium is often transmitted to humans through open wounds. It can also occur after a freshwater injury, such as a snake or alligator bite, or from debris from walking through floodwaters.

People can also become infected by ingesting contaminated food or drink. In some cases, bacteria can be aerosolized and inhaled, such as after a severe storm.

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified bacteria in room spray sold by Walmart and manufactured in India that sickened four people. Two of them died.

It is not generally considered a human-to-human disease.

How dangerous is it?

Some people may never know they have the disease, or it can be treated effectively with antibiotics. Antibodies were found in multiple members of a Texas family that used contaminated room spray Burkholderia pseudomalleibut there were only severe symptoms.

Others, especially those with weakened immune systems, may experience pneumonia, painful abscesses, and organ failure.

“Once it penetrates the skin, it can cause serious soft tissue injuries,” said Dr. James Diaz, an expert in environmental and occupational toxicology and infectious diseases at LSU Health New Orleans. “It can spread to other organs, such as the liver or spleen. “It’s similar to tuberculosis in that patients require multiple antibiotic treatments.”

People with type 2 diabetes are at particular risk.

How did you get to Mississippi?

This is unclear. The bacteria thrive in climates similar to the Gulf Coast, but this is the first time it has been found in soil anywhere in the United States. In the past, infected people usually traveled or had contact. polluted substance.

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But the US has been studying this bacterium for years because it was thought that it could be used as a biological weapon. Some definitely see him here.

“We’ve been concerned about this for a long time,” Diaz said.

In 2014, the bacteria were found in improperly stored vials in laboratories managed by the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration.

The following year, it was found among the rhesus macaques at the Tulane National Primate Research Center, but it was supposed to be inside the lab.

But Wagner, who took samples at the primate center after the Tulane lab spill, said the strain found in Mississippi did not match the strain imported from Asia. Still, federal authorities have been on the hunt for him ever since, Diaz said.

Also available in Louisiana?

It is not known whether the bacteria can exist in Louisiana soil, but it thrives in the conditions found in southeast Louisiana.

According to Wagner, it doesn’t have to be in Louisiana, based on his experience of sampling elsewhere. In Puerto Rico, for example, where Burkholdaria pseudomallei is known to be present, the bacteria is contained in specific areas.

“We tried all over the main island of Puerto Rico and found it somewhere,” Wagner said. “So it’s entirely possible that it’s in Mississippi, not Louisiana.”

But given the proximity and similar climate, it could go all the way to Louisiana.

“Honestly, we don’t know until we look for it,” Wagner said. “So that would be the next step to do systematic sampling and better address the distribution of this thing across the Gulf.”

It’s a “very tolerable mistake,” Wagner said. In one experiment, Thai scientists mixed bacteria with melt water. They tested the water every year and for at least 16 years the bacteria grew without any additives.

How can I protect myself?

Avoid entering water or puddles with open wounds, Diaz said.

“If you’re swimming in the freshwater marshes of Mississippi and Louisiana, or the entire Mississippi River basin, be aware of possible ulcers, especially if you’re immune to other diseases, especially diabetes,” Diaz said.

The pathogen especially likes muddy fresh water.

Wear waterproof boots and gloves when working in the dirt, Diaz recommends.

But overall, “it’s a rare bird,” Diaz said. If the infection is detected and treated early, it can be cured.


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