The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is sounding the alarm on a deadly bacteria that purportedly kills up to 50 percent of people it infects and is now endemic to the US gulf coast.
Burkholderia pseudomallei is likely lurking in soil and the stagnant waters across the 1,600 miles from Texas to Florida, warns Dr. Julia Petras, an epidemic intelligence service officer at the CDC.
The bacterial infection induces pneumonia and sepsis and can be fatal. Other symptoms of B. psuedomallei infection include joint pain, fever and headaches in the early stages.
Globally, the infection kills approximately half of the people it infects. Others are asymptomatic and fight off the pathogens with natural immunity.
“Doctors are now on alert for the disease, which can initially be misdiagnosed as another infection,” Petra said. “It’s estimated that there’s probably 160,000 cases a year around the world and 80,000 deaths,” Petras said. “This is one of those diseases that is also called the great mimicker because it can look like a lot of different things.
“It’s greatly under-reported and under-diagnosed and under-recognized — we often like to say that it’s been the neglected tropical disease.”
Burkholderia pseudomallei is native to topsoil and muddy freshwater in South East Asia and northern Australia.
In 2021 Burkholderia pseudomallei was found in three patients in Kansas, Texas and Minnesota.
In 2022, the CDC detected the bacteria, also known as B. psuedomallei, in the US for the first time in soil from the Mississippi coast,
The agency cautions the deadly pathogens are now lurking across Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida.
“It is an environmental organism that lives naturally in the soil, and typically freshwater, in certain areas around the world — mostly subtropical and tropical climates,” Dr. Petras said. “A lot of patients will have pneumonia with sepsis, and/or sepsis, which is associated with higher mortality and worse outcomes.'”
Coming into contact, including through open wounds or ingestion, with water or soil contaminated with the bacteria will cause infection.
In rare cases, the infection is sexually transmissible and transmitted during pregnancy.
It remains a mystery how the deadly bacteria arrived in the United States.
To date, there are only four recorded cases of B. psuedomallei in the US, including two deaths. In one instance, people died in 2021 after inhaling an aromatherapy spray from India that was contaminated with the bacteria.
Two unrelated individuals in Mississippi were infected with the bacteria in 2020 and 2022, prompting the CDC to examine soil and water samples surrounding the patients’ homes. Both patients recovered from the infection.
Dr. Petras assures the CDC has developed protocols to treat the infection.
“‘We have antibiotics that work,” she said. ‘What I’m talking about is IV antibiotics for at least two weeks, followed by three to six months of oral antibiotics.
“It’s an extensive treatment, but if you’ve finished the full course and you’re diagnosed early, which is the really key thing, your outcome is probably going to be quite good.”