A potentially deadly bacteria was found for the first time in water and soil samples in the United States, prompting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to alert doctors and public health experts throughout the country Wednesday to take it into consideration when examining patients.
The bacteria, Burkholderia pseudomallei, was detected in the Gulf Coast region of southern Mississippi. Exposure to the bacteria can cause melioidosis, a “rare and serious disease,” according to the CDC; about 1 in every 4,600 people exposed are found to have the disease, according to a study from 2019. The study also found that about 90,000 people die annually from melioidosis.
“Once well-established in the soil, B. pseudomallei cannot feasibly be removed from the soil,” the CDC wrote in its health advisory. “Public health efforts should focus primarily on improving identification of cases so that appropriate treatment can be administered.”
The samples show that the bacteria has been present in the Mississippi region since at least 2020, when one person in the Gulf Coast region was found to have melioidosis, though it is unclear exactly how long B. pseudomallei has been in the area.
The bacteria has previously been found in regions with tropical and subtropical climates around the world, like South and Southeast Asia, northern Australia and parts of Central and South America. The CDC said that modeling showed that southern Mississippi’s climate was also conducive to growing it.
The environmental sampling in Mississippi was conducted after two patients in the area received diagnoses of melioidosis, two years apart — one in July 2020, the other in May 2022. The unnamed individuals were not related, the CDC said, but lived in “close geographical proximity,” and had not recently traveled out of the United States.
Genomic sequencing data showed that both people had been infected by the same novel strain from the Western Hemisphere, officials said. Both patients were hospitalized and recovered after antibiotic therapy.
Last month, the Mississippi State Department of Health and CDC collected environmental samples of soil, water and plant matter from the patients’ properties, household products and nearby areas they frequented.
The bacteria can infect animals and people through direct contact or through cuts and wounds. The risk of spreading from person to person is low, officials said. Symptoms usually occur between one day to three weeks after exposure.
Most melioidosis cases occur outside the United States, the CDC said. But last year, four people in four different states were infected with melioidosis after using contaminated aromatherapy spray sold at Walmart. Two of the four people died, officials said.
Melioidosis symptoms are nonspecific and vary from person to person, the CDC said, but symptoms include fever, localized pain or swelling, chest pain and headaches. People with diabetes, excessive alcohol use, chronic lung disease, chronic kidney disease and immunosuppressive conditions are more susceptible to the bacteria. Officials said a quick diagnosis and antibiotics were crucial.
B. pseudomallei isn’t the only thing found in soil that can also cause illness.
Valley fever, also called coccidioidomycosis, is an infection caused by a fungus that lives in the soil in the southwestern United States and parts of Mexico and Central and South America. It is contracted by breathing in the microscopic fungal spores from the air, although most people who breathe in the spores do not get sick, the CDC said. In 2019, about 20,000 cases were reported to the agency, most from people living in Arizona or California.