Potentially Deadly Bacteria Found in US: Melioidosis Symptoms Explained

  • A potentially deadly kind of bacteria has been found in US soil and water for the first time.
  • The bacteria — typically found in Thailand and northern Australia — cause the disease melioidosis.
  • Melioidosis is now considered endemic in areas of the Gulf Coast region of Mississippi.

A potentially deadly strain of bacteria has been detected in US soil and water for the first time, prompting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ask healthcare workers to be on the lookout for symptoms in patients.

The bacteria, called Burkholderia pseudomallei, cause a rare disease called melioidosis that has killed 10 to 50% of people who’ve caught it in various outbreaks around the world, the CDC wrote in a health advisory Wednesday.

The bacteria were identified in soil and water in the Gulf Coast region of southern Mississippi during an investigation into two unrelated melioidosis cases, which were diagnosed in 2020 and 2022, the CDC said. Both patients were hospitalized and recovered after treatment with antibiotics, it said.

The bacteria, which typically live in tropical and subtropical climates outside the continental US, are now considered endemic in certain areas of the region, the CDC said.

Melioidosis causes nonspecific symptoms like fever and headaches

People can get infected with Burkholderia pseudomallei through direct contact with contaminated soil or water through cuts in the skin, inhalation, or ingestion. But the risk of spread from person to person is “extremely low,” the CDC said.

Any organ, including the brain, is vulnerable to melioidosis. Symptoms vary depending on the part of the body affected.

Symptoms include fever, localized pain or swelling, ulcers, abscesses, cough, chest pain, difficulty breathing, loss of appetite, weight loss, stomach discomfort, muscle or joint pain, confusion, headache, and seizures.

The CDC asked healthcare professionals to consider the disease when patients show these symptoms.

Generally, it takes two to four weeks after exposure to the bacteria for symptoms to develop, but it can be as quick as within an hour. In 5% of cases, symptoms develop years after exposure, according to the CDC.

People with certain underlying health conditions are most likely to get sick or die from melioidosis. These include diabetes, excessive alcohol use, chronic lung disease, chronic kidney disease, and any condition that weakens the immune system.

The 2 people in Mississippi who caught the bacteria hadn’t traveled outside the US

Burkholderia pseudomallei is often found in places such as Thailand, northern Australia, and Puerto Rico.

An average of 12 melioidosis cases are reported to the CDC each year, but most patients have recently traveled to a country where the bacteria is endemic, the CDC said. The two Mississippi cases hadn’t traveled outside the US, it said.

The samples suggest the bacteria has been present in the region since at least 2020, but it’s unclear for how long and whether it’s spread to other parts of the US.


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