Melioidosis: Experts expect an increase in cases of tropical disease

Melioidosis is an infectious disease that is largely unknown in Europe. However, it kills about half of those who get it. Experts in Graz expect an increase in the disease, which occurs mainly in tropical and subtropical regions of Southeast Asia, Australia and Africa and is caused by bacteria. Med-Uni Graz announced on Thursday that it is developing antibody detection tests for diagnostics and for spreading in the environment.

spread with climate change

Burkholderia pseudomallei is the cause of a dangerous infectious disease. The bacterium’s natural habitat is soil and surface water in tropical and subtropical areas, which are likely to spread with climate change. The pathogen, which is mainly associated with dirty water and soil, is absorbed by skin lesions, but also by inhalation or contaminated drinking water. “You become infected by contact with a contaminated environment, human-to-human transmission is irrelevant,” said Ivo Steinmetz, head of the Diagnostic and Research Institute for Hygiene, Microbiology and Environmental Medicine, in an interview with APA.

Prophylaxis has so far been limited – contact with groundwater or surface water should be avoided in endemic areas, which is easier said than done: model calculations say 165,000 people worldwide suffer from melioidosis each year and a good half of them die from of which. According to experts from Med-Uni Graz, the number of deaths is in the same order as for measles. However, the infection can be easily overlooked during diagnosis.


According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), an infection is treatable if caught early and treated properly. The clinical picture ranges from fever and cough, sometimes also severe pneumonia, which develops over time. If the bacteria spread through the blood throughout the body, there is a risk of life-threatening blood poisoning. The availability of microbiological laboratory diagnostics is therefore essential for the detection of infections, as Steinmetz emphasized. However, in many parts of the world, adequate laboratory diagnostics is not possible due to lack of resources.

The Graz team, led by Ivo Steinmetz, develops highly specific multiplex tests at the point of care, in which antibodies against various Burkholderia pseudomallei proteins can be detected in just one test. “The big advantage of these tests is that no laboratory equipment is needed, so they can be used in very remote areas of the world,” says Steinmetz. The first studies with these tests are currently planned in Vietnam and Nigeria.


In addition, experts from Graz are using molecular methods to more accurately record the spread of Burkholderia pseudomallei in the environment. Using a sensitive detection method, researchers from Graz, in collaboration with Vietnamese partners, have already succeeded in identifying the environmental source of the melioidosis outbreak in North Vietnam, as described by Steinmetz.

Incidentally, patients with chronic kidney and lung disease and type 2 diabetes are particularly often affected by melioidosis in the affected areas. Diabetes leads to an approximately 12-fold increased risk of infection. Given that all predictions predict a specific increase in type 2 diabetes in Asia and Africa, according to Med-Uni Graz, a significant increase in melioidosis cases should be expected in the coming decades.

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