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A deadly bacteria that kills up to 50% of people it infects has now been declared an endemic along the US Gulf Coast.

Dr. Julia Petras, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who made the warning, said Burkholderia pseudomallei, which can cause potentially lethal melioidosis if not treated, is now likely lurking in soil and stagnant water across the 1,600 miles from Texas to Florida. The CDC has confirmed three cases of infection. The most recent case was reported in Mississippi in January. Two others were confirmed in the same Mississippi county in July 2020 and May 2020.

All have recovered.

People infected with severe cases can end up with pneumonia and sepsis, which can be fatal. Dr. Petras said, “It’s estimated that there’s probably 160,000 cases a year around the world and 80,000 deaths. 

Doctors are now on high alert for the disease, as it is known for mimicking other infections. Dr. Petras warns that “This is one of those diseases that is also called the great mimicker because it can look like a lot of different things,” and because of that, “It’s greatly under-reported and under-diagnosed and under-recognized — we often like to say that it’s been the neglected tropical disease.”

The CDC declaration comes less than a year after it was detected in the US for the first time in soil from the Mississippi coast.

The bacteria — also known as B. psuedomallei — is native to tropical areas in South East Asia and northern Australia, but the CDC is now warning it has been identified in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.

In these areas, the agency warns it may be lurking in topsoil, muddy, fresh, or brackish water.

People can become infected by contacting the water or soil — including through open wounds — or ingesting it.

It is unclear how the pathogen arrived in the United States. 

Four cases were recorded in the US — including two deaths — in 2021, with cases later linked to a contaminated aromatherapy spray imported from India.

“A lot of patients will have pneumonia and/or sepsis, which is associated with higher mortality and worse outcomes.” She added, ‘We have antibiotics that work.” 

‘What I’m talking about is IV antibiotics for at least two weeks, followed by three to six months of oral antibiotics.

“It’s an extensive treatment, but if you’ve finished the full course and you’re diagnosed early, which is the really key thing, your outcome is probably going to be quite good.”

Humans can become infected with the bacteria via contact with contaminated soil and muddy water, particularly if they have an open wound.

The bacteria typically infect people through open wounds or inhaling germs during a strong storm. 

Those with diabetes or kidney and liver problems are most at risk.

“Excessive alcohol use is also a known risk factor, and binge drinking has actually been associated with cases as well from endemic areas,” Petras said.

Once the bacteria is inside the body, it attacks organs like the lungs and brain and any organ with an abscess, Petras said.

Thankfully, most people that come into contact with the bacteria never know as their immune systems are able to fight it off. If, however, you are in the gulf area and find yourself feeling ill, go see a doctor right away!