On Wednesday, the Mississippi State Department of Health reported on the discovery of an uncommon bacteria that causes melioidosis, identified in the environment in the United States for the FIRST TIME.
The bacterium, Burkholderia pseudomallei, was previously not thought to be found in the U.S., meaning people who had symptoms similar to those of melioidosis but who had no history of international travel were considered unlikely to be infected with it.
However, two unrelated patients led to the discovery, the CDC said. The bacterium is likely endemic in parts of the southern United States, along the Gulf Coast.
According to a CDC press release, the first person from the coast was diagnosed with melioidosis in 2020, a rare disease caused by a bacteria known as Burkholderia pseudomallei.
A second person living in close geographic proximity was diagnosed with the disease in 2022.
The cases prompted state health officials and the CDC to take samples and test household products, soil, and water in and around both patients’ homes, with permission. The bacteria was found in samples of soil and standing water.
Here’s what the CDC said in a statement:
“The bacteria, Burkholderia pseudomallei or B. pseudomallei, was identified through sampling of soil and water in the Gulf Coast region of Mississippi,” CDC said in a statement.
“It is unclear how long the bacteria has been in the environment and where else it might be found in the U.S.; however, modeling suggests that the environmental conditions found in the Gulf Coast states are conducive to the growth of B. pseudomallei.”
“CDC is alerting clinicians throughout the country of this discovery through a national health advisory, reminding them to be aware of the signs and symptoms of melioidosis and to consider melioidosis in patients that present with symptoms of the disease,” the agency warned.
Melioidosis is generally considered a disease of the tropics. It can infect both people and a range of animals, including sheep and cows.
Though infections are rare, it is dangerous enough to be seen as a potential bioterrorism weapon; it is classed as a Tier 1 select agent, the same class to which threats like Ebola and anthrax belong.
Here’s what we know about ‘Burkholderia pseudomallei’ according to CDC:
Melioidosis is caused by direct contact with B. pseudomallei, which is found in contaminated soil and water. Among the average of 12 melioidosis cases diagnosed in the United States each year, most have occurred in people with recent travel to a country where this bacteria is endemic. Cases of melioidosis have also been linked to contaminated commercial products imported from disease-endemic countries. This recently occurred in 2021 when a cluster of four cases in four states were linked to an imported contaminated aromatherapy spray
Melioidosis has a wide range of nonspecific symptoms like fever, joint pain, and headaches and can cause conditions that include pneumonia, abscess formation, or blood infections. Worldwide, melioidosis is fatal in 10 – 50% of those infected. B. pseudomallei has historically been found in tropical and sub-tropical areas such as South and Southeast Asia, northern Australia, and parts of Central and South America and Puerto Rico. Given the very small number of cases of melioidosis identified historically in the United States, CDC believes the risk of melioidosis for the general population continues to be very low.
Individuals living in the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and who have health conditions that may put them at higher risk—such as diabetes, chronic kidney disease, chronic lung disease, or excessive alcohol use— should take precautions to protect themselves:
- Avoid contact with soil or muddy water, particularly after heavy rains, and protect open wounds with waterproof dressings.
- Wear waterproof boots when gardening, doing yard work, or doing agricultural work, which can prevent infection through the feet and lower legs—particularly after flooding or storms.
- Wear gloves to protect the hands when working directly with soil.