CDC Warns of Potentially Fatal Bacterial Illness on US Gulf Coast

The most common ways the bacterium infects people is through open wounds or by being inhaled during a severe storm with high winds.

HealthDay News — A potentially deadly germ has made its way to the U.S. Gulf Coast, health officials warned this week. So far, three cases of infection from the bacteria Burkholderia pseudomallei have been reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The bacteria causes melioidosis, which can be fatal if left untreated.

“It is an environmental organism that lives naturally in the soil, and typically freshwater in certain areas around the world. Mostly in subtropical and tropical climates,” Julia Petras, an epidemic intelligence service officer with the CDC National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, told HealthDay.

The most recent case was reported in Mississippi in January, following two previous cases in the same county in Mississippi in July 2020 and May 2022. Melioidosis is now considered endemic to the U.S. Gulf Coast and infections may be seen from Texas to Florida, Petras said.

But because most people exposed to B. pseudomallei do not have symptoms of the infection and develop antibodies against it, many more people have most likely been infected. All three patients who were infected responded to treatment and recovered, Petras said.

The most common ways the bacterium infects people is through open wounds or by being inhaled during a severe storm with high winds. It can also be ingested by drinking contaminated water, Petras noted. Those most at risk for a serious bout of melioidosis are people with diabetes and those with chronic liver or kidney disease or any autoimmune disease. “Excessive alcohol use is also a known risk factor, and binge drinking has actually been associated with cases as well from endemic areas,” she said.

It is very rare that the bacterium can be transmitted from one person to another, Petras told HealthDay. Only two cases worldwide are known. One occurred in the womb and the other was from sexual intercourse, but how the transmission happened is not known. Once infected, the bacterium attacks various organs including the lungs, brain, and any organ with an abscess.

According to Petras, the key to combating melioidosis is early diagnosis and the right treatment. “We have antibiotics that work,” she said. “What I’m talking about is intravenous antibiotics for at least two weeks, followed by three to six months of oral antibiotics.” There are specific antibiotics to treat this organism. Meropenem (Merrem) and ceftazidime (Fortaz) are the ones recommended for intravenous use, and then amoxicillin is given via pills for the second phase.

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