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Deadly bacteria found in continental U.S. soil for first time

Burkholderia pseudomallei can cause melioidosis, which is sometimes fatal. Now it’s in soil in the Gulf Coast region of Mississippi

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A petri plate containing multiple colonies of Gram-negative Burkholderia pseudomallei bacteria.

This photo provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention depicts a petri plate containing multiple colonies of Gram-negative Burkholderia pseudomallei bacteria. The bacteria can cause melioidosis, a rare and sometimes deadly disease long thought to be confined to tropical climates. The bacteria been found in soil and water in the continental United States, U.S. health officials said Wednesday, July 27, 2022.

Dr. Todd Parker, Audra Marsh/CDC via Associated Press

A potentially deadly bacterium that’s normally seen in Thailand and northern Australia has been found for the first time in the continental United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health advisory after Burkholderia pseudomallei was found in the Gulf Coast region of southern Mississippi.

Public health officials were able to determine it’s been in the soil since at least 2020, when the first of two cases of the rare, serious disease melioidosis was identified. A second case — a stranger to the person who had the first case, though they live nearby — was diagnosed this May, which led to the soil and water sampling, the advisory said.

Public health officials say the advisory was issued to let clinicians and public health experts nationwide know to consider melioidosis when patients have symptoms of the disease, “regardless of travel history to international disease-endemic regions, as melioidosis is now considered to be locally endemic in areas of the Gulf Coast region of Mississippi.”

Officials said that environmental testing matched the disease to each of the two cases, finding the “same novel strain from the Western Hemisphere,” per The New York Times. While each survived, both were hospitalized with pneumonia-caused sepsis and had known risk factors for the illness, which was lab-confirmed.

The patients gave permission for soil and water sampling and found genetically similar B. pseudomallei — bacteria that generally lives in tropical and subtropical climates, including South and Southeast Asia, northern Australia, parts of Central and South America, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, per the advisory.

The CDC said it can infect humans and animals through broken skin, or by way of mucous membranes, inhalation or ingestion. It cannot be transmitted by respiratory drops and is unlikely to be spread person-to-person.

But once it’s “well-established in the soil,” the public health agency said the bacteria “cannot feasibly be removed from the soil.”

U.S. health experts see about a dozen cases a year and can usually track them to a country where the virus is endemic. In 2021, four cases were linked to contaminated imported aromatherapy spray.

Of those four patients in 2021 — one each in Georgia, Kansas, Texas and Minnesota — two died. The illness is confirmed by culture and has to be treated promptly.

Health officials say people with certain conditions — especially those with diabetes, chronic kidney disease or lung cancer or excessive alcohol use — should take precautions in Gulf Coast Mississippi.

The New York Times said B. pseudomallei has company when it comes to illness-causing bacteria in soil. It cites valley fever or coccidioidomycosis, “an infection caused by a fungus that lives in the soil in the southwestern United States and parts of Mexico and Central and South America” and says in 2019, about 20,000 cases were reported to the CDC. Most of them were from Arizona and California.

If you’ve ever wondered why people have to get regular tetanus shots, a bacterium in soil is the reason there, too: Clostridium tetani spores are “everywhere in the environment,” the CDC says, including in soil, dust and manure. They turn into bacteria when they enter the body.