A potentially deadly bacteria was first found in water and soil samples in the United States, prompting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday to alert doctors and public health experts across the country to take it into account when examining patients. .
The bacterium, Burkholderia pseudomallei, was detected in the Gulf Coast region of southern Mississippi. Exposure to the bacteria can cause melioidosis, a “rare and serious disease,” according to the CDC; about one in 4,600 exposed people is found to have the disease, according to a 2019 study. The study also found that about 90,000 people die each year from melioidosis.
“Once well established in the soil, B. pseudomallei cannot be feasibly removed from the soil,” the CDC wrote in its health advisory. “Public health efforts should primarily focus on improving case identification so that appropriate treatment can be given.”
The samples show that the bacterium has been present in the Mississippi region since at least 2020, when one person in the Gulf Coast region was found to have melioidosis, although it’s unclear exactly how long Burkholderia pseudomallei, also known as B. pseudomallei, has been in the area.
The bacterium has previously been found in areas with tropical and subtropical climates around the world, such as South and Southeast Asia, Northern Australia, and parts of Central and South America. The CDC said modeling showed that southern Mississippi’s climate was also conducive to its growth.
The environmental sampling in Mississippi was conducted after two patients were received in the area diagnoses of melioidosis two years apart — one in July 2020, the other in May 2022. The unnamed individuals were not related, the CDC said, but lived in “close geographic proximity,” and had not been recently from the United States traveled.
Genomic sequencing data showed that both people were infected by the same new strain from the Western Hemisphere, officials said. Both patients were hospitalized and recovered after antibiotic treatment.
Last month, the Mississippi State Department of Health and CDC collected environmental samples of soil, water and plant matter from the patients’ properties, household products and nearby areas they visited.
The bacteria can infect animals and humans through direct contact or through cuts and wounds. The risk of person-to-person spread is low, officials said. Symptoms usually appear between one day to three weeks after exposure.
Most cases of melioidosis occur outside of the United States, according to the CDC. But last year, four people in four different states were infected with melioidosis after using a contaminated aromatherapy spray sold at Walmart. Two of the four people died, officials said.
Symptoms of melioidosis are nonspecific and vary from person to person, the CDC said, but symptoms include fever, localized pain or swelling, chest pain and headache. People with diabetes, excessive alcohol consumption, chronic lung disease, chronic kidney disease, and immunosuppressive conditions are more susceptible to the bacteria. Officials said prompt diagnosis and antibiotics were crucial.
B. pseudomallei isn’t the only thing found in soil that can cause disease, too.
Valley fever, also called coccidioidomycosis, is an infection caused by a fungus that lives in the soil in the southwestern United States and parts of Mexico and Central and South America. It’s contracted by breathing in the microscopic fungal spores from the air, although most people who inhale the spores don’t get sick, the CDC said. In 2019, about 20,000 cases were reported to the agency, most of them from people living in Arizona or California.