If this flesh-eating microbe doesn't sound at all pleasant, then you'd be right, which is why medical professionals are anxious about a new, unexplained outbreak in part of Australia. The bacterium is part of the same family of organisms that cause leprosy and tuberculosis, according to the World Health Organization. In 2016, there were 182 new cases, the highest ever reported. But even this number was dwarfed by a further increase of 51% from November 2016 to the same month a year later.
"Despite being recognised in Victoria since 1948, efforts to control the disease have been severely hampered because the environmental reservoir and mode of transmission to humans remain unknown. It starts generally with a small nodule, but over time it opens up and creates an ulcer". The condition is most common in regions with tropical, subtropical and temperate climates. If not treated properly, it can cause irreversible deformity or long-term functional disability.
But doctors don't know how the disease is spread, nor how to prevent it. Current antibiotic treatments only prevent surgery in 40% of patients, said Dr. Zlatko Kopecki, vice-president of the Australasian Wound & Tissue Repair Society. It mostly affects the skin but can also affect the bone.
All age groups, including children, can be affected by the ulcer.
The report includes graphic images of the ulcer eating away at the flesh of an 11-year-old boy from the Mornington Peninsula, the Victorian bayside region where confirmed infections are up 400 per cent in the last four years.
One theory is that the disease is spread by mosquitoes or aquatic insects.
"Lesions most commonly occur on exposed body areas, suggesting that bites, environmental contamination or trauma may play a role in infection, and that clothing may protect against disease", the authors write, adding that "recent evidence indicates that human-to-human transmission does not occur, although cases are commonly clustered among families".
Because many patients may require plastic surgery to fix damage from the lesions, the disease can be costly to treat.
They are also baffled as to why most of the Australian infections have been in the state of Victoria, while New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania have been mostly spared.