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Researchers say Rare Disease, Meliodosis, is more common than People Think

Update Date: Jan 12, 2016 11:33 AM EST

Many people probably have never heard of a bacterial disease known as meliodosis since the disease, which can be very deadly due to the fact that it is difficult to treat, has always been considered extremely rare. However, according to a new study, meliodosis, also known as Whitmore's disease, is more common than previously thought.

The team led by researchers from Oxford University, the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit (MORU) in Bangkok and the University of Washington in Seattle, set out to analyze the prevalence rate of the disease, which is caused by a bacteria called burkholderia pseudomallei, in different regions of the world. They used a computer modeling system and data on outbreaks dating back to 1910 to map out the disease.

Prior to the study, experts were aware of the fact that meliodosis is more common in certain areas of South and East Asia, the Pacific and northern parts of Australia.

In this analysis, the team found that the disease could also be detected in areas in South America and sub-Saharan Africa. The team added that the disease was most likely present in areas in Central America, southern Africa and the Middle East.

"Our estimates suggest that melioidosis is severely under-reported in the 45 countries in which it is known to be endemic and that melioidosis is probably endemic in a further 34 countries that have never reported the disease," the researchers wrote reported by Yahoo! News.

The researchers noted that the disease is most likely under-reported due to the fact that it tends to manifest like other bacterial diseases, which can lead to many misdiagnoses. Unlike the other diseases, however, meliodosis can only be treated by a handful of antibiotics.

Due to wrong diagnoses that lead to ineffective treatment plans, risk of death from meliodosis is pretty high. The death rate from the disease is around 70 percent. In 2015, the team estimated that 89,000 patients out of 165,000 died from the disease.

"This is an under-appreciated and under-reported disease," study co-author Direk Limmathurotsakul, who is also the Head of Microbiology at MORU, said. "The bacteria is difficult to diagnose, difficult to treat and resistant to many antibiotics. We need more awareness and diagnostic tools."

The bacteria can be found in soil. It infects people via direct contact with an open cut or through inhalation.

The study's findings were published in the journal, Nature Microbiology.

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