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Melioidosis risk rises in the wake of stormy weather across WA

Ewan Gilbert, Wednesday January 17, 2018 - 09:11 EDT
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Recent storms across the Kimberley may carry the melioidosis disease south. - ABC licensed

As if cyclones, crocodiles and stingers weren't enough to worry about, Western Australians are being warned to take precautions against a potentially deadly and ancient disease that may have been stirred up by recent cyclones.

Each year there are dozens of cases reported across northern Australia and it continues to kill a small number of those infected.

The disease lives as a bacterium beneath the soil's surface in the tropics, but can become airborne in the wet season as heavy rains disturb it.

The head of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Western Australia, Professor Tim Inglis, said there was a risk the recent weather sparked by Cyclone Joyce would carry the disease closer to Perth.

"Watch this space and particularly as we're talking about severe weather coming southwards over the main metro area," Professor Inglis said.

"We reckon we're going to see more of these cases partly as a result of what's happening with the weather.

"This is a time when folks further south than the tropics need to be sitting up and asking 'Could this oddball infection that's not responding to antibiotics … could it be melioidosis?'"

In recent years it has been reported as far south as the Pilbara, Gascoyne and even Mandurah.

'Potentially life-threatening'

There are several types of melioidosis infection, and signs and symptoms can be mistaken for other diseases such as tuberculosis or more common forms of pneumonia.

Professor Inglis said the infection was serious.

"And potentially life-threatening particularly for people who have an underlying chronic disease like diabetes or chronic kidney disease," he said.

In the Northern Territory a lot of work is done each wet season to warn the community about the threat but Professor Inglis said many Western Australian's remained unaware.

"[Melioidosis] doesn't stop at the border," he said.

"There are many parts of the world where people are completely ignorant of this danger that lurks in our backyard."

Managing the risk

Professor Inglis said in the past it was often considered a disease that mostly affected Indigenous people.

"But with more things like eco-tourism, with more industrial, commercial and pastoral development in the Top End it's inevitable that there will be not only more people, but more non-Indigenous people going down with this infection, and for various reasons that tends to draw more attention to it," he said.

Contracting the infection was often associated with gardening but there were also cases of people who became sick simply by breathing the bacteria in.

Professor Inglis said there were steps people could take to limit the chance of exposure.

"If you get caught out in a storm make sure that you clean any cuts or grazes or skin scrapes that you get," he said.

"And in the few weeks after wet weather, when the land is drying out, if you are [doing something outdoors] and as a result of those activities you end up with minor cuts or grazes, clean those wounds out promptly."


© ABC 2018

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