Millions on alert as cases of flesh-eating bacteria 'increase significantly'

Buruli ulcer may start as a lesion like a bite or lump under the skin that gets bigger over days or weeks.

People are being urged to stay vigilant amid a flesh-eating bacteria outbreak in several Melbourne suburbs.

Cases of Buruli ulcer have "increased significantly" in Victoria in recent years, with the skin and soft tissue infection now spreading to six new suburbs in northern Melbourne, leading to one grandmother fearing she'd lose her leg.

Almost all the new cases are linked to the Merri-bek suburbs of Brunswick West, Coburg, Pascoe Vale South and the Mooney Valley suburbs of Essendon, Moonee Ponds and Strathmore, according to the Western Health Public Unit (WPHU). Victoria Health recently advised the disease has been detected in several parts of the state and is no longer restricted to specific locations.

A photo of Buruli ulcer on a boy's lower back.
Several suburbs in Melbourne are on high alert for Buruli ulcer, a flesh-eating bacteria. Source: WPHU

How do I look out for Buruli ulcer?

Caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium ulcerans, the disease is spread from possums to people by mosquitoes, according to local research. Once infected, humans cannot pass it on to other humans.

Residents are encouraged to look out for what may start as a lesion like a bite or lump under the skin that gets bigger over days or weeks. The bite can also take between four to five months to develop — meaning those showing signs could've been exposed in early 2023 — and most commonly occurs on the ankle, lower leg and arms.

City of Moonee Valley Mayor, Cr Pierce Tyson, urged any residents with non-healing skin lesions to visit their doctor for assessment as soon as possible.

“Most Buruli ulcers are treatable with oral antibiotics,” Mayor Tyson said. “Early diagnosis is key to a swifter and more full recovery.”

How do I prevent it?

Since 2017 cases of Buruli ulcer, also known as Bairnsdale ulcer, have been increasing to between 200 to 340 each year. Victoria Health however says the overall risk of transmission is considered low.

Reducing the risk of mosquitoes in and around the home is important to prevent the chance of suffering a Buruli ulcer. Some strategies include:

  • Covering or removing mosquito breeding sources, such as gutters, pot plant containers, buckets, open tins, or cans.

  • Making sure water tanks are screened off to prevent mosquitoes from breeding there

  • Installing insect screens

Other ways to avoid bites are using insect repellents containing diethyltoluamide (DEET) or picaridin, wearing long, loose-fitted and light-coloured clothing, and avoiding mosquito-prone areas especially at dusk and dawn.

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