September 7, 2016 -- Writers: Prof. Herbert Schweizer and Prof. Apichai Tuanyok
Melioidosis is a less-well known bacterial disease discovered just over 100 years ago in Burma (now Myanmar) in Southeast Asia. It is mostly a disease of the tropical and subtropical regions of the world and is associated with high mortality. Melioidosis is caused by the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei that patients, particularly rice farmers, usually acquire from environmental sources such as contaminated soil and water. The disease affects mostly patients with underlying conditions, which include diabetes, malignancies such as cancer, and alcoholism. B. pseudomallei is scarcely transmitted from human-to-human and although it can infect many animals and insects, animal-to-human or insect-to-human transmissions have not been documented.
While melioidosis and its causative agent B. pseudomallei were traditionally researched in parts of the world where both naturally occur, for instance Southeast Asia and Northern Australia, it was not until the early 2000s that B. pseudomallei received more widespread attention in Western countries in the wake of the anthrax attacks in the United States because of its biothreat potential. It is, however, even more significant as an emerging pathogen that according to recent studies is considerably more widespread than previously thought. It has been estimated that the global fatality of human melioidosis is comparable to death from measles and substantially greater than that from the well-known tropical and subtropical diseases dengue and leptospirosis. B. pseudomallei’s established habitat reaches around the globe, including the Americas where it has been demonstrated in South America, Central America, and many Caribbean Islands, including Puerto Rico.
Two world-renowned UF melioidosis researchers, Herbert Schweizer, Ph.D., professor and a Preeminence hire, and Apichai Tuanyok, Ph.D., assistant professor, study B. pseudomallei and melioidosis in the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute (EPI). Working with colleagues from domestic and international academic, governmental, and industrial institutions, laboratory studies performed at UF seek to develop and guide new diagnostics and therapeutic approaches, as well as development of vaccines for melioidosis prevention. These efforts are supported by fieldwork studying the environmental presence of the bacterium in various parts of the world, including Asia and the Caribbean.
With assistance from UF’s conference department and EPI, Drs. Schweizer and Tuanyok organized the Eighth World Melioidosis Congress, which was held in Cebu City, Philippines, from August 7-10, 2016. This congress brought together 200 attendees from 21 countries to present and discuss recent advances in melioidosis research conducted around the globe under the theme “One Health.” The congress was preceded by a workshop chaired by Dr. Tuanyok and sponsored by the World Health Organization. The workshop was attended by 60 participants from 20 countries. The intent of the workshop was to raise global awareness of melioidosis and to share knowledge about proper diagnosis and treatment of B. pseudomallei infections. Dr. Schweizer served on the faculty for this workshop.
The World Melioidosis Congress was followed by a one-day workshop organized and sponsored by the International Melioidosis Society and the United States Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). Its main purpose was to outline a roadmap for the mission of the newly established Southeast Asia Melioidosis Regional Center Network (RCN). This center is funded by the DTRA – Cooperative Biological Engagement Program (CBEP) and its mission is to assess the burden of B. pseudomallei and melioidosis in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. Aside from a consulting member of the RCN, Drs. Tuanyok and Schweizer are the only U.S. members of this network.
Organization of the World Melioidosis Congress and participation in the associated workshops showcased UF’s standing in research in the melioidosis field. It highlighted not only the contributions that UF melioidosis and Burkholderia research make to raising global awareness of a bacterium and disease that many have never heard of, but also the real difference that this research makes in areas of the world where patients are affected by this devastating disease.