Crocodiles aren't the only health hazard in the Top End. Health authorities in Australia's Northern Territory are also tracking an unusual increase in melioidosis infections this wet season. Three people have died from the bacteria in the territory since October, with residents in the northernmost parts of WA, the NT and QLD most at risk.
In Darwin, infections are referred to as Nightcliff Gardener’s Disease, relating to the leafy suburb in the city and the association with muddy soil. Read on to find out how to spot symptoms of the disease, and how to take preventative measures.
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What is melioidosis and how do you get infected?
Melioidosis is a disease caused by bacteria called Burkholderia pseudomallei, a soil-dwelling bacteria found mostly in Southeast Asia and Northern Australia.
The bacteria is found in soil and is more prevalent after rainfall, with infections more common in the wetter months of the year (November to April).
In the dry season, the bacteria is found in deeper soil layers, but in the wet season, the bacteria are flushed to the surface of the soil and can be found in muddy surface areas. If you spend time on farms or in bushland in close contact with soil, you might be at risk.
The bacteria usually enter the body through cuts and sores in the skin, by inhalation of dust or droplets, or very rarely by ingestion of contaminated water.
It's important to note that not everyone is at risk of contracting melioidosis and becoming ill.
Adults with underlying diseases and conditions such as diabetes, chronic lung/kidney diseases, excessive alcohol consumption, cancers and treatments (e.g. steroids) that lower immunity are more likely to be affected
Signs and symptoms of melioidosis
Infection of the lungs — ranges from mild bronchitis to severe pneumonia. You may also experience fever, headaches, loss of appetite, cough, shortness of breath, chest pain or general muscle soreness.
Septicaemic pneumonia — infection through the bloodstream and lungs. Can cause fever, headaches, breathing difficulties, abdominal pain, joint pain and disorientation.
Chronic melioidosis — spread from the skin to the blood leading to heart, brain, liver, kidneys, joints and eye issues. Includes fever, weight loss, stomach pain, muscle pain, headaches and seizures.
Localised infections — pain, localised swelling, skin infection, ulceration, and abscess formation.
Symptoms usually develop within three weeks of exposure but can take months or even years. If you think you might have melioidosis, it is important to see a doctor right away to be tested. Melioidosis can be a severe and life-threatening disease, and it requires diagnosis as soon as possible so you can begin treatment.
Treatment for melioidosis
Healthcare providers treat melioidosis with two phases of broad spectrum antibiotics.
In the first (intensive) phase, your healthcare provider will give you medicine through an IV (directly into a vein) for at least two weeks.
In the second (eradication) phase, you’ll take pills for at least three months.
You may need additional types of treatments, depending on how severe your illness is.
In severe cases, admission to an intensive care unit may be required
Prevention of melioidosis
There is no current vaccine to prevent melioidosis. Adults with any of the underlying medical conditions should take the following precautions:
Wear protective footwear when outdoors, these should be waterproof if walking in wet soil where there is pooled water or if you are working in muddy conditions.
Wear gloves while working in the garden, on the farm etc.
Cover abrasions and sores with waterproof dressings.
Wash your skin thoroughly after exposure to soil or muddy water, and after working outdoors.
Wear a mask covering your nose and mouth if using a high-pressure spray hose around the soil.
Diabetics should maintain optimal foot care, with help from a podiatrist if necessary.
For more information, please contact your local doctor, health centre or nearest Public Health Unit.
In a medical emergency, call an ambulance by dialling 000 in Australia or 111 in New Zealand.
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Image credit: Athena at Pexels.
All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health professional.