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Melioidosis: Experts expect an increase in cases of the tropical disease

Melioidosis: Experts expect an increase in cases of the tropical disease

Melioidosis is an infectious disease that is largely unknown in Europe. However, it kills around half of those who contract it. Graz experts expect an increase in the disease, which occurs primarily in tropical and subtropical regions of Southeast Asia, Australia and Africa and is caused by a bacterium. The Med-Uni Graz announced on Thursday that they are developing tests for detecting antibodies for diagnostics and for spreading in the environment.

spread with climate change

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

The options for prophylaxis have so far been limited – in endemic areas, contact with the ground or surface water should be avoided, which is easier said than done: model calculations say that 165,000 people worldwide contract melioidosis every year, and a good half of them die from it. According to the experts at Med-Uni Graz, the number of deaths is in the same order of magnitude as that of measles. In the diagnosis, however, the infection can easily be overlooked.


According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the 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 to detect the infections, as Steinmetz emphasized. In many parts of the world, however, adequate laboratory diagnostics are not possible due to a lack of resources.

The Graz team led by Ivo Steinmetz is developing highly specific multiplex point-of-care tests in which antibodies against various Burkholderia pseudomallei proteins can be detected with just one test. “The great advantage of these tests is that no laboratory equipment is required and these tests can therefore also be used in very remote regions of the world,” says Steinmetz. The first studies with these tests in Vietnam and Nigeria are currently being planned.


In addition, the Graz experts are trying to use molecular methods to record the distribution of Burkholderia pseudomallei in the environment more precisely. With the sensitive detection method, the Graz scientists, in cooperation with Vietnamese partners, have already been able to identify the environmental source of a melioidosis outbreak in North Vietnam, as Steinmetz described.

Incidentally, patients with chronic kidney and lung diseases and type 2 diabetes are particularly often affected by melioidosis in the affected regions. Diabetes leads to an approximately twelve-fold increased risk of contracting the infection. Since all forecasts predict a particular increase in type 2 diabetes in Asia and Africa, according to Med-Uni Graz a significant increase in melioidosis cases must be assumed in the coming decades.

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