Flesh-eating ulcers on rise in Australia, study warns

CANBERRA • Australia's top scientific body has issued a warning over the rise of flesh-eating ulcers in the country, calling for an "urgent scientific response".

A study published yesterday by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and healthcare provider Barwon Health detailed the rise of the Buruli ulcer in Australia.

The tissue-destroying ulcer, commonly found in Africa, has reached epidemic proportions in regional parts of Victoria state in Australia.

"(In Victoria), the community is facing a worsening epidemic, defined by cases rapidly increasing in number, becoming more severe in nature, and occurring in new geographic areas," said the report in the Medical Journal of Australia.

"In 2016, there were 182 new cases - the highest ever reported... Yet, cases reported until Nov 11, 2017 have further increased by 51 per cent compared with the same period in 2016."

There have been no reported cases in New South Wales, South Australia or Tasmania - the three states closest to Victoria.

The bacterium that causes the disease belongs to the same family of organisms that causes tuberculosis and leprosy. If diagnosed early, an eight-week course of antibiotics is effective in 80 per cent of patients. However, if left untreated, the ulcers can infect bones, and often result in long-term disability and cosmetic deformity.

"Despite being recognised in Victoria since 1948, efforts to control the disease have been severely hampered because the environmental reservoir and mode of transmission to humans remain unknown. It is difficult to prevent a disease when it is not known how infection is acquired," the report said.

The ulcer is commonly associated with wetlands in Africa, particularly those with slow-flowing or stagnant water.

"The risk of infection appears to be seasonal, with an increased risk in the warmer months," the study said.

"Lesions most commonly occur on exposed body areas, suggesting that bites, environmental contamination or trauma may play a role in infection, and that clothing may protect against disease.

"Recent evidence indicates that human to human transmission does not occur, although cases are commonly clustered among families."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 17, 2018, with the headline 'Flesh-eating ulcers on rise in Australia, study warns'. Print Edition | Subscribe