Possum poo holds the key to Burili ulcer outbreaks

Possum poo holds the key to detecting future outbreaks of a flesh-eating disease in Victoria.

A new surveillance system capable of detecting elevated risks of Burili ulcer outbreaks in Victoria has the potential to control the disease.

Once considered an exotic bacterial infection, Buruli ulcer has become a public health problem in Victoria, with the state now considered one of the most endemic areas for the disease globally.

A world-first, collaborative research project led by University of Melbourne Professor Tim Stinear, director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Mycobacterium ulcerans at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute), has made significant progress in understanding how the disease is transmitted and what can be done to prevent infections from the flesh-eating bacteria.

Comparing data from possum “poo” analysis to epidemiological data over time, researchers identified a significant spatial correlation between clusters of M. ulcerans positive possum excreta and clusters of human Buruli ulcer cases.

“Our data showed that outbreaks of Buruli ulcer coincided with a high number of possums carrying the bacteria,” Prof Stinear said.

“While it is something we’ve been suspecting for a while, this finding categorically confirms the important role of Australian native possums in the transmission of the bacterium to humans,”

Following this significant finding and using the possum “poo” data, the team developed the first-ever computer modelling program capable of predicting locations and times of increased Buruli ulcer transmission risk in Victoria.

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