Issue 2
Monday, 13 March 2017
Charles Darwin University
Experts have confirmed the Australian origins of the bacterium (Burkholderia pseudomallei)
Experts have confirmed the Australian origins of the bacterium (Burkholderia pseudomallei)

Menzies helps track deadly melioidosis bacteria

By Paul Dale

An international team of experts has confirmed the Australian origins of the bacterium (Burkholderia pseudomallei) that causes the potentially fatal infectious disease melioidosis and tracked its global dissemination.

The results of the study, led by a team from Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the United Kingdom, and involving collaborators from the Darwin-based Menzies School of Health Research have been published in the journal Nature Microbiology.

The research used whole genome sequencing of a global collection of bacterial isolates to plot the travel history of melioidosis bacteria and to determine the extent and frequency of the spread.

It confirmed that the organism originated in Australia before being introduced to South-east Asia, with subsequent spread to Africa and on to the Americas. Ongoing collaborations are now defining global hot spots for melioidosis as well as unmasking locations where it was not previously thought to be present.

Lead investigator Professor Sharon Peacock from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute said it was important that information was available to help people understand if they were at risk, as well as how to prevent being infected by the bacterium.

“We have known about melioidosis for many years, but it’s only in the past 25 years that we have started to understand it better,” Professor Peacock said.

Melioidosis was considered to be something of a medical curiosity and a rare tropical disease for many years, but recent modelling predicts that 165,000 people may develop the infection every year globally, and about 89,000 of these will die from it.

“We now know that infection can result from bacteria being inoculated, ingested or inhaled, which helps to shape guidelines on how to avoid this preventable disease,” Professor Peacock said.

Menzies’s team leader for Tropical and Emerging Infectious Diseases, Professor Bart Currie said that gene sequencing had also enabled the team to investigate and better understand the distribution of melioidosis in Australia and to pinpoint the origins of infections that have unexpectedly occurred in non-tropical locations such as the USA.

“We now know that the melioidosis bacterium is surprisingly present in some usually very dry locations in the heart of Central Australia, with cases of melioidosis following flooding rains,” Professor Currie said.

“There are also recognised pockets of bacteria in the environment in southeast Queensland and southwest Western Australia. What we don’t know is the extent of potential for melioidosis beyond these specific non-tropical locations across Australia.”

For tips on avoiding the melioidosis bacteria, visit the Northern Territory Government’s Centre for Disease Control W: