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Flesh-eating disease breaks out in Australia


When a neglected tropical disease arrives in a developed country, calls for further research follow, writes Anna Kosmynina.


Ella Crofts’ ulcerated knee.
Ella Crofts’ ulcerated knee.
Ella Crofts

Cases of Buruli ulcer, a rare flesh-eating disease, are on the rise on the Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne in Victoria, Australia.

“While Buruli is a rare disease in global terms, we are in the middle of an epidemic on the Mornington Peninsula,” Professor Tim Stinear, of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, told the Australian Science Media Centre.

Associate Professor Matthew Todd of the University of Sydney agreed, saying, “the increase over the last 20 years is quite striking, specifically in Victoria”.

Ella Crofts is a 13-year-old Victorian schoolgirl who suffers from the disease and has begun a petition for more research into the mysterious illness. What started as a painful knee in April “slowly got worse, with my knee becoming swollen and inflamed, until one day, the skin started breaking down,” Crofts explained on her petition page.

The bacteria at fault, Mycobacterium ulcerans, is closely related to those that cause tuberculosis and leprosy, according to Associate Professor Sanjaya Senanayake of the Australian National University.

Although Buruli ulcer isn’t lethal, since “so little is known about [it], treatment can be complicated or lengthy”, said Matthew Todd.

There are side-effects to antibiotics, and “delayed diagnosis means serious complications for people with infection, including the need for plastic surgery,” explained Tim Stinear.

Despite several courses of antibiotics, Crofts said her wound kept getting worse and she’s since had a number of surgeries to clean out dead tissue but still hasn’t recovered.

“Buruli ulcer is an official WHO neglected tropical disease, meaning there is little market incentive for the development of new medicines,” said Matthew Todd.

This is what Crofts is trying to fix. Her petition hopes to gain “Federal and state government support for research into Mycobacterium ulcerans” and is just over 500 signatures shy of its goal of 10,000 supporters at the time of writing.

The disease, also known as Bairnsdale ulcer or Daintree ulcer, has affected more than 30 countries world-wide and in Australia it mostly infects older people, although younger people can catch it too, according to Sanjaya Senanayake.

“Most cases are diagnosed in the winter months, but infection may have actually occurred in summer,” he continued.

It looks like mosquitoes and possums help spread the infection from person to person, suggested Tim Stinear, with fresh water also being a possible culprit, according to Sanjaya Senanayake.

“This outbreak is a reminder that these ‘neglected’ diseases can also arrive in developed nations, where the lack of effective treatments becomes more noticed,” Matthew Todd concluded.

Anna Kosmynina is a media officer at the Australian Science Media Centre.
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