Melioidosis: An emerging infectious disease in the Americas

Once thought to live only in Southeast Asia, the bacteria that cause melioidosis are now known to exist in South and Central America plus the Caribbean.

Herbert P. Schweizer, Ph.D., attended the recent “Melioidosis in the Americas Regional Scientific Meeting” at Universidad El Bosque in Bogotá, Colombia. El Instituto Nacional de Salud (INS) de Colombia and TEPHINET of the Task Force for Global Health with technical assistance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) called this meeting to review current knowledge and future directions for melioidosis surveillance, diagnostics, and public health activities in the Americas.

Map showcasing where melioidosis can be found in the Americas.

Melioidosis is a disease caused by the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei. While known for over 100 years as an infectious disease agent in Southeast Asia, it was not until after the anthrax attacks in 2001 in the United States that the bacterium attracted more widespread attention in the Western world because of its bio-threat potential. It is now recognized that Burkholderia pseudomallei and the disease that it causes are considerably more widespread than previously thought. In the Americas, both have now been documented in South and Central America and the Caribbean (countries with documented cases of melioidosis are shown on the map). As in other parts of the world, melioidosis is likely underdiagnosed in the Americas because clinicians and microbiologists are generally unaware of the presence of Burkholderia pseudomallei and do not know how to look for it. Complicating proper diagnosis and management is that disease symptoms frequently mimic those seen with other well-known diseases such as tuberculosis.         

The objectives of the Bogotá meeting were to bring together subject matter experts and attendees representing clinicians, veterinarians, researchers, and public health officials from South and Central America and the Caribbean to raise awareness of Burkholderia pseudomallei and melioidosis. Lectures included an overview of melioidosis, including clinical aspects, diagnostic tools and the current state of melioidosis case investigations, surveillance, and diagnostics in South and Central America and the Caribbean. Schweizer lectured on the topic “Antimicrobial Therapy and Resistance Aspects for Melioidosis.”

The Burkholderia research group led by the University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute researchers Schweizer and Apichai Tuanyok, Ph.D., is known globally for its contributions to Burkholderia pseudomallei and melioidosis research. It is thus well poised to make major contributions to educational and research efforts aimed at further understanding the prevalence of the disease and the causative bacterium in the Americas. Such efforts are warranted now that both have been documented at the doorstep of the United States.