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Emergency research starts into mysterious Buruli ulcer flesh-eating disease

A $3million research project into a mysterious flesh-eating disease spreading across parts of Australia has been given emergency approval. 

University of Melbourne professor Tim Stinear will lead a two-year $3 million research project into Buruli ulcer which is believed to be spread by mosquitoes, PerthNow reported. 

‘Southeast Australia is one of the few places outside of west Africa where Buruli ulcer is prevalent,’ he told the Doherty Institute on Thursday.

Mosquitoes are believed to be behind a flesh-eating ulcer epidemic spreading across parts of Australia, with cases of infection skyrocketing by 400 per cent (stock image)

The Buruli ulcer begins as a small insect bite and slowly eats away at the skin (stock image)

The Buruli ulcer begins as a small insect bite and slowly eats away at the skin (stock image)

‘This gives us an obligation, in fact, where we are well resourced, to study and try to understand this disease. It gives us a responsibility to do something about it.’

The two-year study will be one of the first in the world to look into the spread of the virus. 

Academics are planning to conduct a cull of the mosquitoes in coastal Victoria.

The federal government announced that it would invest $1.5 million to research the ulcer.

An additional $1.5 million will come from partnership funding including $250,000 from the Victorian government. 

The infection is most commonly found in west or central Africa, but has spread throughout Victoria and far north Queensland in recent years.  

The infection is most commonly found in west or central Africa, but has spread throughout Victoria and far north Queensland in recent years. Pictured, severe Mycobacterium ulcerans lesion on the knee of an 11-year-old boy

The infection is most commonly found in west or central Africa, but has spread throughout Victoria and far north Queensland in recent years. Pictured, severe Mycobacterium ulcerans lesion on the knee of an 11-year-old boy

A two-year study into the infection will be led by University of Melbourne professor Tim Stinear (stock image)

A two-year study into the infection will be led by University of Melbourne professor Tim Stinear (stock image)

Cases in Victoria have skyrocketed in recent years, with a record number of 275 infections recorded last year. 

Most commonly found in west or central Africa and usually associated with stagnant water, it can have devastating impacts on sufferers, including long-term disability and deformity.

In Victoria, the number of people contracting the disease has increased, with 182 new cases in 2016, 275 in 2017 and 30 so far in 2018 – and experts say there is potential for the disease to affect thousands in the state each year.  

Federal Heath minister Greg Hunt said the nation had a pathway to stop the disfiguring disease.  

Around 2,000 Buruli ulcer cases per year are reported worldwide, most commonly from the tropical regions of West or Central Africa

Around 2,000 Buruli ulcer cases per year are reported worldwide, most commonly from the tropical regions of West or Central Africa

‘This is a horrible and painful medical condition and research is vital to get to the bottom of this new health challenge,’ Health Minister Greg Hunt said in a statement.

‘My hope is that research will eventually identify a common source of the cause of this type of bacterium, which will lead to faster diagnoses, treatment and prevention strategies.’

More than $3 million has already been spent by state and federal governments in the past decade on researching the disease.   

EPIDEMIC OF THE FLESH-EATING BURULI ULCER: WHAT WE KNOW

WHAT IS A BURULI ULCER?

  • It’s a skin infection caused by a bacteria known as Mycobacterium ulcerans
  • The organism belongs to the family of bacteria that causes tuberculosis and leprosy
  •  It typically causes skin ulcers, otherwise known as Buruli ulcer
  •  It is also known as Bairnsdale or Daintree ulcer
  •  It can affect the bone and can lead to permanent disfigurement and long-term disability

WHERE DOES IT OCCUR?

  •  According to WHO, at least 33 countries, including Australia, with tropical, subtropical and temperate climates have reported Buruli ulcer, but mainly in west and central Africa

WHO IS AFFECTED?

  •  About 2000 cases are reported worldwide each year
  •  All age groups, including young children, can be infected

HOW IS IT TRANSMITTED?

  • The exact method remains unclear, but the disease is often associated with wetlands, especially stagnant water
  •  Evidence indicates it can not be transmitted from person to person
  •  Insects, such as mosquitoes, have been shown to contain the bacteria and they may play a role in transmission
  •  Use of repellent and mosquito nets have been linked to a reduction in occurrence

WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?

  •  The first sign of Buruli ulcer is usually a painless, non-tender blister-like nodule on the skin, often thought to be an insect bite
  •  A lesion may occur anywhere on the body but is most common on the limbs
  •  After one to two months, the nodule may begin to erode, forming a characteristic ulcer

HOW IS IT TREATED?

  •  In Australia and Japan, most lesions are detected early and diagnosed as a Category 1
  •  Treatment involves a combination of antibiotics, depending on the patient
  •  Many sufferers require plastic surgery

Source: AAP – Health Victoria, World Health Organisation, Medical Journal of Australia



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