Warning of Potentially Deadly Bacteria Found In U.S. Soil and Water For First Time

A potentially deadly bacteria has been detected in soil and water samples in the U.S. for the first time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced on Wednesday, warning that the rare but dangerous disease it causes is likely endemic in areas along the Gulf Coast.

Burkholderia pseudomallei, bacteria that can cause a “rare and serious disease” called melioidosis, was found in the Gulf Coast region of Mississippi, the agency said in a health alert.

The bacteria is usually found in tropical regions and it’s not clear how long it has been in the U.S. environment prior to 2020—when samples were first taken—or how widespread it is, the CDC said.

Modeling suggests environmental conditions in the Gulf Coast states are suitable for the bacteria to grow, the CDC said, adding that melioidosis is “now considered to be locally endemic” in Gulf Coast areas of Mississippi.

The bacteria most commonly infects animals and humans through direct contact with broken skin and the risk of it spreading between people is “extremely low,” the CDC said.

Most healthy people who come into contact with the bacteria never develop melioidosis, the CDC said, but symptoms are nonspecific and vary depending on where someone is infected but can include fever, localized pain and swelling, headaches, and seizures.

Globally, 10-50% of melioidosis cases are deadly and the agency has urged clinicians to consider it as a potential diagnosis when seeing patients as quick diagnosis and prompt antibiotic treatment “are critical.”

Authorities began investigating the area after two patients were diagnosed with melioidosis in southern Mississippi in 2020 and 2022. Genetic studies indicated that both patients had been infected with the same novel strain of B. pseudomallei from the Western Hemisphere. They were not related but lived within “close geographical proximity” to one another and neither had traveled out of the U.S. recently, the CDC said. Both were hospitalized but recovered after antibiotic therapy. The disease kills an estimated 90,000 people around the world each year and there are around 165,000 cases annually, research suggests. Experts note the disease can be tricky to diagnose due to the diverse array of possible symptoms and inadequate testing methods.

Further studies on the bacteria’s spread. The CDC said that B. pseudomallei “cannot feasibly be removed from the soil” once well-established. It is possible that means it is now in the U.S. for good, though it’s possible it has been for some time and remained undetected. The agency said extensive soil sampling will be needed to answer questions on spread and how long the bacteria has been here.

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