Sri Lankan health officials are warning the public of the increases of the deadly bacterial infection, Melioidosis, and the risks particularly after the recent floods, landslides and upcoming monsoon season.

Sri Lanka/CIA
Sri Lanka/CIA

According to health officials, through May 2016, 28 cases have been reported. This compares to recent years–2011 (6 cases during entire year), 2012 (5), 2013 (10), 2014 (23) and 65 cases last year.

Senior Lecturer in Microbiology at the Medical Faculty, University of Colombo, Dr. Enoka Corea said, “With early identification of Melioidosis, the patients can be treated effectively and deaths prevented,” she says, pointing out that the mortality rate is a shockingly high 1 in 4 among those stricken by this disease. This is way higher than the number of lives that Leptospirosis or Dengue claims.

“While there has been an ‘exponential’ rise in cases in recent times, in the five months of this year alone, 6 deaths have occurred due to Melioidosis”.

Melioidosis (also known as Whitmore disease and Nightcliff gardener’s disease) is caused by the bacterium, Burkholderia pseudomallei. The disease though somewhat rare has been seen in areas of Southeast Asia and Northern Australia, particularly after heavy rains. In Thailand it is considered a disease of rice farmers.

The organism is saprophytically found in soil and water. People usually get infected by contact with contaminated soil or water through skin wounds, inhalation or rarely through ingestion of contaminated water.

Person to person transmission can occur through contact with blood and body fluids of an infected person.

Depending on how heavy the infection incubation can range from hours to weeks. Infection may show nosymptoms but it can quickly progress to disseminated disease involving skin and a variety of organs.

Pneumonia from B. pseudomallei can be seen either in acute or chronic disease. Chronic pulmonary meloidosis may present itself years after exposure and can mimic tuberculosis.

Fatality rates of melioidosis can reach up to 75 percent even with appropriate antibiotic treatment. Fatalities are particularly greater in those with underlying conditions like diabetes mellitus or renal disease.

People at higher risk of contracting this disease are those with jobs or hobbies that increase their exposure to contaminated soil and water like military, construction, farmers, eco-tourists and other adventure travelers.

Prevention is based on avoiding exposure of cuts and other trauma with soil and water in endemic areas. This is especially important if the person has an underlying disease. The use of boots and gloves are recommended for people whose work involves contact with soil and water, like farmers.