A dangerous soil bacteria has been identified in Mississippi. How worried should Louisiana be?

A dangerous soil bacteria has been identified in Mississippi. How worried should Louisiana be?

Earlier this week, the Gulf Coast made headlines nationwide after a rare bacteria was discovered for the first time in Mississippi. The bacteria can cause an infectious disease known as melioidosis, which can be deadly in some people.

Two unrelated people living in close proximity to each other along the Mississippi coast were sickened with melioidosis two years apart — in 2020 and 2022 — which prompted health officials to test household products, soil and water from in and around the residents’ homes. Three samples from soil and puddle water tested positive for the bacteria. Both patients were hospitalized with sepsis due to pneumonia, and both recovered after antibiotic treatment. 

Here’s what you need to know. 

What is melioidosis?

Melioidosis is an infectious disease caused by a bacteria known as Burkholderia pseudomallei. It is a very persistent bacteria that lives in soil and freshwater, and typically is found in Southeast Asia and northern Australia. Some people know it as a rice farmer’s disease, said David Wagner, a disease ecologist at Northern Arizona University who has studied the bacteria extensively.

“It can be very common in rice paddies,” said Wagner. “If they have cuts on their feet and they’re working in the rice paddy barefoot, they can get inoculated that way.”

How it is transmitted?

The bacteria often infects a person through an open wound, as was seen in many soldiers during the Vietnam War. It can also occur after an injury in freshwater, such as a snake or alligator bite, or an injury from debris while walking through floodwaters.

People can also be infected by ingesting contaminated food or drink. In some cases, the bacteria can be aerosolized and breathed in, such as after a heavy rainstorm.

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified the bacteria in a room spray sold by Walmart and manufactured in India, which made four people sick. Two of them died. 

It’s not generally thought of as a disease that can be passed from person to person.

How dangerous is it?

Some people may never know they are infected, or can be effectively treated with antibiotics. In one Texas family that had used the contaminated room spray, many members were found to have antibodies to Burkholderia pseudomallei, but only one had severe symptoms.

But others, especially those who are immunocompromised, can experience pneumonia, painful abscesses and organ failure.

“Once this gets into the skin, it can cause terrible soft tissue wounds,” said Dr. James Diaz, an expert in environmental and occupational toxicology and infectious diseases at LSU Health New Orleans. “It can be transmitted to other organs like the liver or spleen. It almost resembles tuberculosis in that patients require treatments with multiple antibiotics.”

People with type 2 diabetes are especially at risk.

How did it get to Mississippi?

It’s unclear. The bacteria thrive in a climate similar to the Gulf Coast, but this is the first time it’s ever been detected in the soil anywhere in the U.S. In previous cases, people who were found to be infected typically had a history of travel or contact with a contaminated substance.

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But the U.S. has been studying this bacteria for years because it was thought to have the potential to be used as a biological weapon. Some see its presence here as inevitable.

“We’ve been worried about this for a long time,” said Diaz.

In 2014, the bacteria was found in improperly stored vials in labs run by the National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration.

The following year, it was found among Tulane National Primate Research Center’s rhesus macaques, though it was supposed to be contained within a laboratory.

But according to Wagner, who conducted sampling at the primate center after the Tulane lab leak, the strain found in Mississippi does not match the strain from that leak, which was imported from Asia. Still, federal authorities have been on high alert in their search for it ever since, said Diaz.

Is it also in Louisiana?

It’s unclear if the bacteria might be present in Louisiana soil, but it does thrive in conditions found throughout southeast Louisiana.

Wagner said it may not necessarily be in Louisiana based on his experience sampling in other places. In Puerto Rico, for example, where Burkholdaria pseudomallei is known to exist, the bacteria is contained to certain areas.

“We sampled all around the main island of Puerto Rico, and we only found it in one place,” said Wagner. “So it’s entirely possible that it’s just there in Mississippi and not in Louisiana.”

But considering the proximity and similar climate, it’s very possible it has made its way to Louisiana.

“Honestly, we don’t know until we go look for it,” said Wagner. “So that would be the next step, to do some systematic sampling, and get a better handle on the distribution of this thing along the Gulf.”

It is a “very hardy bug,” said Wagner. In one experiment, Thai scientists mixed the bacteria with distilled water. They tested the water each year, and for at least 16 years, the bacteria thrived without any additions.

How can I protect myself?

Don’t go into floodwaters or puddles with open wounds, said Diaz.

“If you are cavorting in the freshwater swamps of Mississippi and Louisiana or throughout the Mississippi River Basin, do avoid potential puncture wounds, particularly if you’re otherwise immunosuppressed by diseases, especially diabetes,” said Diaz.

The pathogen especially likes muddy freshwater.

Wear waterproof boots and gloves when working in soil, recommended Diaz.

But overall, “this is a rare bird,” said Diaz. If you identify the infection early and can get treatment, recovery is likely.

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