Australia has a flesh-eating-bacteria problem

Professor Tim Stinear has been featured in an article in The Atlantic about Victoria’s Buruli ulcer outbreak to discuss his work mapping the spread of the disease.

In 2017, Victorian health authorities noticed a strange occurrence: in the serene beachside suburbs of Melbourne’s Mornington Peninsula, cases of a little-known tropical disease were on the rise. More than 100 people had been infected with a type of flesh-eating bacteria that is rarely seen in this part of the world.

Buruli ulcers are caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium ulcerans. Once the pathogen enters the skin it begins breaking down and consuming flesh, leaving painful and debilitating wounds that can be disfiguring if left untreated.

Australia has seen occasional cases of the disease since the 1930s. But Victoria’s recent outbreak has mystified researchers over the past few years, particularly regarding its source and how the disease is being spread.

Professor Tim Stinear is one researcher who has joined the quest to better understand the Buruli ulcer. The Bacterial Pathogenomics lab, which he heads in the School’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology and the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, is studying Mycobacterium ulcerans bacteria using genome sequencing.

A recent article on Victoria’s Buruli outbreak in The Atlantic, followed Professor Stinear in his work to map the pathogen’s spread.

Buruli ulcers have been found extensively in the hotspot area’s ringtail possum population, with traces of the bacteria found in their droppings. However, it is not yet certain how the disease is transferred to humans. Professor Stinear’s theory is that the pathogen can be transmitted through mosquito bites, although a definitive link is yet to be established.

Professor Stinear has been systematically collecting possum droppings from Buruli hotspot areas and testing them for genetic traces of the bacteria. The aim of this is to create a map that may be useful for predicting future local outbreaks of the disease.

While reported cases of Australian Buruli ulcers have declined in 2020, the Buruli ulcer remains a global health issue, with high case numbers in West and Central African countries.

Nonetheless, while there are still many unanswered questions about the disease, learning more about its transmission is a step towards finding effective preventative measures.

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