A potentially deadly type of bacteria 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 announced on Wednesday.
The bacteria, Burkholderia pseudomalleican cause a disease called melioidosis, which has been shown to be fatal in half of cases worldwide.
About a dozen cases are discovered each year in the United States, usually among people who have traveled abroad.
On Wednesday, however, the CDC announced that the bacteria had been found in soil and water samples along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and it issued a health alert to doctors nationwide to be on the lookout. 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 is not known how long the bacteria has been present in the environment and where it might be found in the United States,” the CDC said in a statement.
Dr. Jill Weatherhead, assistant professor of tropical medicine and infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, was not surprised the bacteria entered the country.
“We live in a subtropical climate here in the United States along the Gulf Coast, where it’s hot and humid. It’s a suitable environment for Burkholderia pseudomallei,” she says.
The bacteria has the potential to grow anywhere along the Gulf Coast, she said, and it could become endemic.
The discovery of the bacteria on US soil comes after two people who were not related but lived next door to each other in Mississippi fell ill with melioidosis – one in 2020 and the other in 2022.
According to the CDC’s Health Alert for Physicians, both patients were hospitalized with sepsis after developing pneumonia. Both received antibiotics and recovered.
Samples taken from soil and puddles near patients’ homes contained the bacteria, confirming its presence in the United States, the CDC said.
The same bacteria was also found last year in a contaminated aromatherapy room spray that sickened four people in Georgia, Kansas, Minnesota and Texas. The cases were not linked to the current alert, as the spray had been imported from India, where B. pseudomallei is endemic.
Two of these people, including a 5-year-old boy, died. The other two patients ended up with lasting 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 Gemstones.
Although B. pseudomallei has now been found in soil and water across the United States, infectious disease experts say the bacteria is unlikely to cause widespread harm.
“It takes significant exposure,” either through an open wound or ingestion, to cause illness in people, said Dr. Chris Woods, professor of medicine at the Duke Global Health Institute.
Usually, he said, this 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 make a correct diagnosis in time to help patients.
The CDC said people living along the Gulf Coast may want to take extra precautions when in contact with soil or muddy water, such as wearing waterproof boots and covering open wounds.
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