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Man who suffered 'killer dirt' disease melioidosis spent months battling life-threatening infection

By Emily Piesse, Thursday January 18, 2018 - 10:03 EDT
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Bob Creek contracted melioidosis, which left a persistent sore on his leg. - ABC

It was an unlucky scrape that Bob Creek knows could have cost him his life.

The 68-year-old was walking across a Darwin backyard one night in May last year, when he fell down a one-metre hole that was covered but did not support his weight.

"I lost some bark off my shin and I didn't think too much about it," he recalls.

But the semi-retired project manager knew something was wrong when his minor wound — the size of a twenty cent piece — still had not healed after six weeks, despite a course of antibiotics.

Further tests were done, and Mr Creek received a call from the infectious disease unit at the Royal Darwin Hospital.

"The tests had come back positive and I actually had melioidosis," he said.

"I was told to report to hospital immediately, on the day."

In Darwin, melioidosis is sometimes called Nightcliff Gardeners Disease, a reference to the suburb where Mr Creek lives.

He describes being "pretty dejected" when he got the positive test results.

"I must say that I nearly fell through the floor because having lived in the Territory for over 40 years, I was certainly aware of melioidosis," he said.

"I was very aware of it. That it was extremely serious and does at times result in death."

Farmers, travellers warned of risks

Melioidosis is a bacterial infection spread through contact with contaminated soil or water, which usually occurs in tropical regions and commonly begins with an infected cut or soft tissue abscess.

However, the disease has been found in the South West of Western Australia, as far south as the Peel region.

It has also been detected in livestock, with some persistent clusters of the disease near Toodyay and Gidgegannup — evidence of long-distance transfer of the disease.

PathWest medical microbiologist Dr Tim Inglis said the risk of infection may be elevated at present .

"It seems that the risk is as great to livestock as it is to humans, and that's possibly a reflection of the fact that livestock may well be plodding around in muddy fields after this sort of rainfall," Dr Inglis said.

"It really looks as if it's where the cyclone makes landfall in its very early stages where you get the greatest degree of aerosolisation [of the bacteria]."

However, the infectious disease expert said the risk of an outbreak in the south of WA was much lower than in the north, with about two or three cases of melioidosis recorded across the state each year.

"We've seen those dusty sunsets. We've obviously seen quite a lot of dust being washed out of the air in the Perth metro area in the last few days," Dr Inglis said.

"It's perfectly legitimate to ask could it transfer in that way?

"Well, the studies that we've done and this seems to accord with studies done elsewhere, is that if that does occur, it occurs very, very infrequently.

"We would estimate no more than about once a decade or less frequently."

'I haven't bounced back': Post-infection risks high

For those who contract the disease, there are risks of further infection including pneumonia or meningitis, particularly for people with chronic conditions such as diabetes.

Bob Creek was hospitalised and treated with intravenous antibiotics for two weeks, followed by a three-month course of tablets.

He received the all-clear from the Infectious Disease Unit at the Royal Darwin Hospital at the end of September.

The long-time surf boat enthusiast was diagnosed with a form of pneumonia in the wake of the melioidosis and has suffered from aching limbs.

"I think it's fair to say that I haven't bounced back 100 per cent," Mr Creek said.

"I've probably just got to give my body a bit of time to recover from this."


© ABC 2018

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