NEW YORK — A germ that causes a rare and sometimes deadly disease—long thought to be confined to tropical climates—has been found in soil and water in the continental United States, U.S. health officials said Wednesday.
A Mississippi man had contracted the disease melioidosis and the bacteria was discovered on his property. Officials don’t know how long it had been there, but they say it likely is occurring in other areas along the Gulf Coast.
U.S. physicians should consider melioidosis even in patients who haven’t traveled to other countries, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a health alert.
“Once it’s in the soil, it can be a health threat for people in the area,” said the CDC’s Julia Petras, who oversaw the investigation.
A wide variety of symptoms can be present, including fever, joint pains and headaches. It’s treatable with the right antibiotics if it’s caught early, but it can lead to pneumonia, blood infections, and even death if not properly treated.
Each year, the U.S. reports approximately 12 cases. Most of the cases have occurred in individuals who visited areas with the disease, which include Australia, Thailand and Central and South America.
The illness can be contracted by direct contact with soil or water contaminated, particularly if someone has a cut on the hand or foot. Inhaling the bacteria can be an option.
Healthy people may not be affected by the bacteria. However, it may be harmful to people who are diabetic, have chronic kidney disease or suffer from lung disease.
Four people contracted the illness last year, even though they had never traveled abroad. Officials blamed the illness on an infected aromatherapy spray from India.
The new findings explain two Mississippi cases in men who hadn’t traveled internationally, officials said. Both the one from Mississippi contracted melioidosis in 2020, and the second, from a nearby area, was diagnosed this year. Both are now well.
Health officials didn’t say exactly where in Mississippi the men live, but investigators took 109 soil and water samples from the area. The bacteria was found in three spots—two in soil and one in a puddle—on the property of the man who was sickened two years ago.
The discovery of bacteria in American soil is significant but not unexpected. Investigators have long believed that local soil contamination was behind infections in Texas’s Atascosa County in 2004 and 2018, CDC officials said.
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