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Scientists sound the alarm over deadly tropical disease discovered in southern US: 'It is critical to prevent infection'

Residents in Gulf Coast states should be aware that it may be present in their environments.

Residents in Gulf Coast states should be aware that it may be present in their environments.

Photo Credit: iStock

A tropical disease that recently infiltrated the United States has pushed scientists to sound the alarm for health care providers to be on the lookout.

What's happening?

The disease, called melioidosis, has been diagnosed in the U.S. before, though most of those cases were linked to traveling to tropical or subtropical areas where the bacterium that causes it was known to be present: South and Southeast Asia, northern Australia, and parts of Central and South America and Puerto Rico, Medscape and the Centers for Disease Control reported.

There has been an average of 12 U.S. cases per year.

The bacterium that causes the illness, Burkholderia pseudomallei, is now newly endemic to the southern continental U.S., as reported by Medscape and the CDC in April 2023.

Residents in Gulf Coast states should be aware that the disease may be present in their environments because "up to 9 out of every 10 people who get it die" worldwide without treatment, per the CDC, and it's still fatal in two out of 10 with the best medical care. A January 2023 case marked the third diagnosis in Mississippi since 2020, according to Medscape and the CDC.

The first two cases were likely precipitated by contact with the bacterium in the soil around people's homes. Burkholderia pseudomallei can also be present in water, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH). Symptoms of melioidosis include fever, joint pain, and headaches, and the disease can lead to pneumonia, abscesses, and blood infections.

Why is this concerning?

The development could be at least in part a result of rising global temperatures. According to a paper in Current Opinion in Infectious Diseases, "climate change could directly impact on the distribution of B. pseudomallei" and melioidosis.

As human-produced heat-trapping gases envelop Earth, regions once free of certain bacteria and infectious parasites may no longer be safe. 

In 2014, a central Texas three-year-old was diagnosed with another rare tropical disease, leishmaniasis. A more common example of this phenomenon of a disease expanding its range is the increasing spread of West Nile virus.

What's being done?

"It is critical to prevent infection through the feet and lower legs (after flooding or storms)," the MSDH has stated.

The department advises Gulf Coasters — especially those with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, chronic kidney disease, chronic lung disease, or excessive alcohol use — to avoid contact with soil or muddy water, especially after heavy rains.

The MSDH also recommends protecting open wounds with waterproof dressings, wearing waterproof boots when gardening or doing agricultural work, and wearing gloves when working directly with soil.

"CDC encourages clinicians in the Gulf Coast region of the southern United States and throughout the country to learn about melioidosis and to be aware of the potential for more non-travel cases as CDC and state partners continue investigating the geographic spread of B pseudomallei," the Medscape report stated.

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