Is Buruli ulcer the reason your skin won’t heal? And what is it, anyway?

Experts say cases of Buruli ulcer are on the rise in parts of the country – but what is it, and how can you avoid getting this disease? 

Chances are you might have heard people talking about Buruli ulcer – also known as Daintree or Bairnsdale ulcer.  

This “flesh-eating” disease, which is caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium ulcerans, has been reported in 33 countries around the world. 

On the home front, the infection is spreading, with cases being reported in Queensland, the Northern Territory and Victoria. 

Doherty Institute microbiologist Professor Tim Stinear says Buruli ulcer is on the rise on the Mornington Peninsula, and it’s spreading through suburban areas of Melbourne and Geelong.

Case numbers are increasing as the infection spreads through our native possums, who are also victims of this disease,” Prof Stinear says.

How do you get Buruli ulcer?

Buruli ulcer is an infection acquired from the environment, and scientists believe it is spread by mosquitoes – it’s not transmitted from human to human.

It’s also thought it can be caught when contaminated water, soil or possum poo comes into contact with skin that’s had a penetrating injury.

What are the symptoms of Buruli ulcer?

The infection often starts as an ordinary-looking lump or nodule – much like an insect bite

 – that usually appears on the arms, legs or face, might itch and doesn’t heal. 

“Slowly, the bacteria eat away at the flesh underneath, and it can cause pretty severe pain,” GP and The House of Wellness TV host Dr Isabella Carr says. 

“If no-one thinks about what it (the lesion) is, it’s just going to keep growing and growing.”

How is Buruli ulcer treated? 

If you’re diagnosed with Buruli ulcer, it’s important to start treatment as soon as possible. 

You will be given a course of oral antibiotics, and will usually be treated by an infectious disease specialist.

Sometimes, surgery may be required to promote healing.  

How do you prevent Buruli ulcer? 

People can protect themselves from contracting Buruli ulcer by preventing mozzie bites, and preventing mozzies breeding around the home,” Prof Stinear says. 

In addition, wearing gloves when gardening and promptly cleaning and treating any new cuts or grazes can help reduce the risk of contracting the infection. 

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Written by Helen Dewar.