A potentially deadly bacterial species previously only found in parts of South Asia, Africa or Australia has been detected for the first time in soil and water samples in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday.
the bacteria, Burkholderia pseudomalleican cause a disease called melioidosis, which has proved fatal in half of cases worldwide.
About a dozen cases are discovered each year in the US, mostly among people who had traveled abroad.
However, on Wednesday, the CDC announced that the bacteria had been found in soil and water samples along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, and issued a health warning to doctors across the country to watch for symptoms of melioidosis, which can be vague, including cough, fever and chest pain. In more severe cases, the disease can lead to disorientation, pneumonia-like illness, and seizures.
“It’s unclear how long the bacterium has been in the environment and where else it can be found in the US,” the CDC said in a statement.
dr. Jill Weatherhead, an assistant professor of tropical medicine and infectious diseases at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, was not surprised that the bacteria had invaded this country.
“We live in a subtropical climate here in the US along the Gulf Coast, where it’s hot and humid. This is a suitable environment for Burkholderia pseudomallei,” she said.
The bacteria have the potential to thrive all along the Gulf Coast, she said, and could potentially become endemic.
The discovery of the bacterium in U.S. soil comes after two people who were not related but lived near each other in Mississippi fell ill with melioidosis — one in 2020 and the other in 2022.
According to the CDC’s health warning to doctors, both patients were hospitalized with sepsis after developing pneumonia. Both received antibiotics and recovered.
Samples taken from the ground and puddles near the patients’ homes contained the bacteria, confirming its presence in the US, the CDC said.
The same bacteria were also found last year in contaminated aromatherapy room spray that sickened four people in Georgia, Kansas, Minnesota and Texas. The cases were unrelated to the current alert, as the spray was imported from India, where B. pseudomallei are endemic.
Two of those people, including a 5-year-old boy, died. The other two patients were left with permanent physical and mental health problems.
Walmart, which sold the imported product, recalled nearly 4,000 bottles of its “Better Homes & Gardens Lavender & Chamomile Essential Oil Infused Aromatherapy Room Spray with Gemstone.”
although B. pseudomallei Now found in U.S. soil and water, infectious disease experts say the bacteria are unlikely to cause widespread damage.
“It takes significant exposure,” either through an open wound or ingestion, to cause disease in humans, said Dr. Chris Woods, a professor of medicine at the Duke Global Health Institute.
Usually, he said, that happens in places where the bacteria have grown and concentrated.
While melioidosis can be treated with certain intravenous antibiotics, doctors say it can be difficult to get an accurate diagnosis in time to help patients.
The CDC said people living along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast may want to take extra precautions when coming into contact with soil or muddy water, such as wearing waterproof boots and covering open wounds.
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