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Australian Mosquitoes Spreading Flesh-Eating Disease
In Terry Gilliam’s 1995 science fiction classic 12 Monkeys (now available from Universal Pictures), James Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time to prevent the release of an artificial virus which will kill the majority of humanity and send the rest of them running underground.
Pathogens are a challenging adversary. They move stealthily and transform our own loved ones into weapons of war against us. Fortunately, the world’s most dastardly microbiologists have so far resisted the urge to release a species-ending disease into the world (thanks, by the way!), but there are plenty of perfectly natural pathogens out there ready and waiting to gobble up our tissues at the first opportunity.
Recently, researchers studying the spread of Buruli ulcer, a flesh-eating disease caused by Mycobacterium ulcerans, found that it might be passed from infected possums to humans through mosquito bites. That’s according to new research presented at the ASM Microbe 2023 meeting on June 18.
Flesh-Eating Disease on the Rise
Buruli ulcer is a rare condition, affecting only a couple thousand people around the world each year, but cases have been on the rise in recent years. Understanding how the disease is transmitted could help public health workers to track the spread and treat patients at the earliest possible opportunity.
M. ulcerans is a slow-growing bacterium, which is good news when it wants to eat your flesh, but it also makes chasing down the origin of the disease challenging. It can take up to nine months between infection and the first symptoms of disease, which makes figuring out the point of transmission difficult.
In Australia, possums are also impacted by M. ulcerans, which they shed in their feces. That got researchers thinking that there might be a connection between cases of infection in possums and in humans, but probably not from possum poop. So far, scientists have struggled to find a link between possums and humans which might facilitate transmission, but they may have found one in mosquitos.
Researchers hypothesized humans might be infected by mosquitoes who fed on an infected possum and then fed on a person. A survey of more than 72,000 mosquitos collected from the Mornington Peninsula in southeastern Australia, where cases of Buruli ulcer are on the rise, found a number which had recently fed on humans and possums. The survey also confirmed that the bacteria retrieved from possums, humans, and mosquitoes were genetically identical. That suggests an unbroken transmission line between the three species, at least in Australia.
Moreover, almost all of the positive tests came from a single species of day-biting mosquito called Aedes notoscriptus. While it’s certainly possible that M. ulcerans travels along multiple transmission paths, the evidence of mosquito transmission between Australian ring-tailed possums and humans is compelling.
Fortunately, M. ulcerans is highly treatable with antibiotics. When caught early, treatment can clear the bacteria from your body before scarring, disfigurement, or disability occurs. Did anyone ever ask James Cole to check for possums in the past? He might have saved himself a bit of trouble.
Catch 12 Monkeys, a story which reminds us that meddling with the past is a great way to muck things up, available now from Universal Pictures.