Scientists in Australia warn of 'rapidly worsening epidemic' of flesh-eating ulcer

Researchers are calling for more funding to investigate the Buruli ulcer

Scientists in Australia warn of 'rapidly worsening epidemic' of flesh-eating ulcer

Ziehl-Neelsen (ZN) stained smears from a Buruli ulcer showing red extracellular acid-fast bacilli. Image: WHO

Researchers are calling for an 'urgent scientific response' amid a worsening epidemic of a flesh-eating ulcer in parts of Australia.

The Buruli ulcer is a disease that causes 'severe destructive lesions of skin and soft tissue', with the potential of causing long-term disability.

All age groups, including children, can be affected by the ulcer.

The disease is most common in Africa, and has been linked to wetlands.

However, the exact causes remain unclear - including how it is transmitted to humans - with the World Health Organisation (WHO) saying there are no known 'primary preventive measures' for the ulcer.

While the disease is curable with antibiotics in most cases, the drugs needed are expensive.

Patients may also need plastic surgery and frequent hospital admissions.

In Australia's Victoria state, the number of cases jumped from under 50 in 2005 to almost 250 last year - with the number having risen significantly in 2016 and 2017.

Scientists in Australia are calling for more funding to investigate the disease, saying any findings could hopefully be applied globally as well as locally.

Writing in the Medical Journal of Australia, researchers say: "As a community, we are facing a rapidly worsening epidemic of a severe disease without knowing how to prevent it. We therefore need an urgent response based on robust scientific knowledge acquired by a thorough and exhaustive examination of the environment, local fauna, human behaviour and characteristics, and the interactions between them.

"It is only when we are armed with this critical knowledge that we can hope to halt the devastating impact of this disease through the design and implementation of effective public health interventions. The time to act is now, and we advocate for local, regional and national governments to urgently commit to funding the research needed to stop Buruli ulcer."