Flesh-eating bug creating zombie animals

WARNING: GRAPHIC

THE humble bandicoot may play a key role in spreading a harmful flesh-eating bacteria in Far North Queensland.

James Cook University researchers have discovered that bandicoots in the Douglas Shire region may be reservoirs for the bacteria that causes Daintree Ulcer, also known as Buruli ulcer in humans.

James Cook University researcher Avishek Singh analysing a bandicoot captured as part of a study examining the transmission of Daintree Ulcer to humans
James Cook University researcher Avishek Singh analysing a bandicoot captured as part of a study examining the transmission of Daintree Ulcer to humans

The bacterial disease, which causes necrosis of skin tissue, has been reported in more than 33 countries.

There has only been one case of the infection identified in the Cairns health district this year, however about 100 cases have been reported in Victoria since the start of 2019.

The slow-growing bacteria's exact path of transmission to humans has largely remained a mystery, however scientists found last year that it may be transferred to humans via mosquitoes.

Surgery on a Daintree Ulcer case in a human foot.
Surgery on a Daintree Ulcer case in a human foot.

James Cook University scientists trapped and analysed 140 bandicoots, four white-tailed rats, and two possums in the Mossman-Daintree area from March 2016 to February 2018. Of these mammals, they found three bandicoots tested positive for the Daintree Ulcer bacteria, Mycobacterium ulcerans.

Researcher at James Cook University's School of Medicine Avishek Singh has discovered that bandicoots living in the Daintree harbour the flesh-eating bacteria Daintree Ulcer, which can then be transferred to humans through mosquitoes. PICTURE: BRENDAN RADKE
Researcher at James Cook University's School of Medicine Avishek Singh has discovered that bandicoots living in the Daintree harbour the flesh-eating bacteria Daintree Ulcer, which can then be transferred to humans through mosquitoes. PICTURE: BRENDAN RADKE

Lead study author, JCU PhD candidate Avishek Singh, said the finding showed bandicoots may be a reservoir for the disease.

"This bacterial organism multiplies inside the bandicoots," he said.

"The mosquitoes take in the bacteria, and then inject it into humans."

Daintree organic farmer Andre Leu says he lost two years of his life fighting the Daintree Ulcer.
Daintree organic farmer Andre Leu says he lost two years of his life fighting the Daintree Ulcer.

Mr Singh suggested the relatively low amount of the bacteria found in trapped animals related to the overall reduced load of the pathogen in the environment - thought to be linked to rainfall.

He said there was still much more to learn about the bacteria, in particular why it was so geographically restricted to the Mossman-Daintree area.

"We still can't explain why it doesn't occur in bandicoots outside of this area," he said.


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