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Dangerous Ground

Tim Inglis searching for B. pseudomallei in the Kimberley.

Tim Inglis searching for B. pseudomallei in the Kimberley.

By Tim Inglis

A deadly bacterium lies dormant in tropical soils until it is disturbed by natural disasters, mining operations or even gardening.

Tim Inglis is a medical microbiologist with PathWest Laboratory Medicine WA, QEII Medical Centre, Perth.

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Outbreaks of serious infectious diseases were predicted after the first wave of floods in Pakistan. Weeks later those predictions were proved sadly accurate as the human tragedy unfolded, with further flooding adding to the human misery caused by cholera, malaria, dengue and skin infections.

The scale of this disaster dwarfed the Indian Ocean tsunami that occurred on Boxing Day in 2004. In both of these events a short list of infectious diseases appeared high on the list of priorities for medical relief workers preparing to join the international aid effort. Dominating the headlines was cholera, a disease feared even more than typhoid and dysentery, probably due to its ability to spread so quickly. These and other gastrointestinal infections are a common result of the toxic combination of a natural disaster, a large number of displaced people and a lack of basic sanitation.

But you can guarantee that one potentially fatal tropical infection, known as melioidosis, will not even appear on the radar until after long after the onset of disaster. This soil-borne infection was diagnosed in a series of sporadic cases in the wake of the 2004 tsunami at points around the Indian Ocean. As it can be remarkably difficult to diagnose, we can predict that the majority of melioidosis cases in flood-ravaged Pakistan will go undetected.

Warm and Wet...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.