Parts of Australia have recently been hit by an epidemic of flesh-eating ulcers that scientists can’t figure out how it started or how it spread.
Known as Buruli ulcers, the disease first appears as a red, small lump that looks like a pimple or a bug bite. But if left untreated, the lumps can grow larger and cause “severe destructive lesions of skin and soft tissue” within weeks, Daniel O’Brien, deputy director of the department of infectious diseases at Barwon Health in Victoria, told The Washington Post.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the disease belongs to the same family of bacteria that causes tuberculosis and leprosy and typically affects a person’s legs or arms.
O’Brien says that compared to other flesh-eating bacteria, like necrotising fasciitis, Buruli ulcer isn’t the “most aggressive,” but has been known to “eat away one limb or a large part of a limb.”
The disease is most commonly found in central and West Africa, but the Australian state of Victoria has reported epidemic levels of the disease recently.
From 2016 to 2017, there was a 50 percent increase in reported cases in Victoria, O’Brien said, with the number of severe cases doubling in the last five or six years.
Last fall, a 13-year-old girl from the town of Tyabb, Victoria in Australia contracted the disease. Her case started out as a sore knee and then developed into an open wound that had to be treated by three operations and “months of powerful antibiotics,” the BBC reported.
Because scientists don’t know how the disease is transmitted or where it lives in the environment, there are currently no preventative measures that can be applied, according to the WHO. Victoria’s Department of Health is funding studies to see if the disease is spread by mosquitoes and are also studying local possum feaces to test for the bacteria.
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