CDC Warns Doctors About a Mystery Bacterial Outbreak With No Clear Origin

Photo of Burkholderia pseudomallei after three days in chocolate agar. Photo by Todd Parker/CDCThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are warning doctors about strange cases of illness that have been reported in three states. It is caused by a rare bacteria found in the United States. This strain has already killed at least one person and left two others in hospital. Melioidosis is a deadly illness that can spread between people but is not usually contagious. Although the causes of the infections are not known, officials believe that they may be related.AdvertisementThe CDC has announced that at least three people have been diagnosed with melioidosis in non-adjacent States (Kansas and Texas) since Wednesday, March 2021. Ten days after his initial hospitalization, the first victim, a male with preexisting lung problems, died. In May, the other victims, a child and a woman, were identified. The one patient was discharged to a transitional unit while the other is still in hospital.Gizmodo received an email from a representative of the CDC confirming that the CDC is currently working with Minnesota, Texas and Kansas state health officials to investigate three cases of melioidosis (a rare but serious bacterial infection) which resulted in one death.Melioidosis (also known as Whitmore's disease) is caused by the rod-shaped bacteria Burkholderia pseudomallei. It can affect many animals and people. The symptoms of Melioidosis are not specific and can look similar to many other diseases. It all depends on the location of the infection in the body. Fever is the most common cause of infection. However, it can also cause chest pain and a reduced appetite in the respiratory tract. It can also spread to the bloodstream where it can cause life-threatening sepsis and even the brain or nervous systems. It is difficult to diagnose melioidosis. Some automated tests can mistake the bacteria for another type, so it is important that appropriate treatment be given. Even with the aggressive antibiotics administered through IV, it can still be fatal. It kills between 10% and 40% of victims when symptoms first appear. It can also remain dormant within the body, causing no symptoms until it is too late.B. pseudomallei is naturally found in soil and water of tropical areas. This is how most people come into direct contact with it, especially after a wet season. Although it is rare, it has been shown to be aerosolized and can spread through the air between animals and people. Its high lethality, difficult-to-trace nature and potential for spreading through the air have led governments such as the U.S. and other countries to consider it a bioterror threat.According to the Iowa State University's Center for Food Security and Public Health, the bacteria has not been detected in North American natural environments. Because cases of the bacteria in the United States are not often identified, it is usually traced back through travel to countries where it is endemic. This explanation doesn't make sense though as none of the families of the patients had reported any recent travel outside the country. The three cases are linked because they were all infected by the same strain of bacteria.The agency stated that testing suggests a common source, but it has not been identified. The CDC is currently working with the states to determine whether there are any common exposures, products or environmental factors among these people. CDC experts also provide epidemiologic assistance to assist in investigating the source of infection.AdvertisementSome theories of the outbreak may not be plausible, according to the CDC. William Bower, epidemiology branch lead at the Bacterial Special Pathogens Branch, CDC, says that the genetic analysis shows that B. pseudomallei does not have a new home in America. The strains found in victims do not resemble any strains from other parts of the Americas.He said that there is currently no evidence suggesting the cases are the result of biological attacks.AdvertisementThis is not a disease that could become a major epidemic in America. There have also been rare cases in North America in which travel cannot explain the situation. The CDC believes that the public is at low risk. This outbreak is still a mystery and needs to be solved. The cause of Melioidosis is generally not well understood and appreciated. It is estimated that it kills at least 89,000 people each year worldwide, but the actual death toll could be much higher.The CDC has issued an alert asking doctors to consider melioidosis a possible diagnosis for symptoms that are similar. It also asks them not to disregard travel history and to consider rerunning tests using automated detection if they have come across other bacteria that B. pseudomallei could be mistaken for.AdvertisementThe CDC encouraged healthcare workers to be aware that there could be more cases and to report them to their state health departments.