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Flesh-eating Buruli ulcer cases discovered in inner Melbourne suburbs

Health authorities detect cases of the Buruli ulcer in Essendon, Moonee Ponds and Brunswick West, but an expert says the risk of getting it is low and there are good treatments for the illness.

Cases of the flesh-eating Buruli ulcer have been discovered in the Melbourne suburbs of Essendon, Moonee Ponds and Brunswick West, Victoria's Department of Health has said — the first time a non-coastal area has been identified as a potential area of risk.

Key points:
  • The Department of Health said a genetic analysis suggested there was a common link to the Melbourne cases
  • The risk of catching it in the new areas is "low", the department said
  • The Buruli ulcer is a painful skin lesion that requires early treatment to prevent complications

A "handful" of cases had been discovered over a period of time which are linked, the department said.

The bacteria had also been isolated in the faeces of a local possum but the source had not been established.

Tim Stinear from the Doherty Institute in Melbourne said initially it was hard to know if these people caught the illness at their homes or at their coastal holiday homes where the ulcer was more prevalent.

"Recently we've been able to use the power of genomics to establish evidence of the local transmission of Buruli ulcer in these inner suburbs," Professor Stinear said.

"Yes it is a flesh-eating disease but it's a very slowly moving one, one we can treat and if we detect it early then it's not a serious infection.

"I don't think there's a cause for huge alarm here."

The skin infection caused by the bacterium mycobacterium ulcerans (M. ulcerans) can initially be mistaken for an insect bite.

Over a period of months it can progress to potentially destructive skin lesions known as Buruli, or Bairnsdale, ulcers.

While the condition is not lethal, it can leave people maimed or scarred for life.

"If people present with a small mosquito bite that doesn't look quite right there's a very good diagnostic test," Professor Stinear said.

"If you're given the right antibiotics then there's a really good clinical outcome for people."

Mornington Peninsula builder Anthony Fleming suffered a flesh-eating bacteria on his leg, known as Mycobacterium Ulcerans.Mornington Peninsula builder Anthony Fleming suffered a flesh-eating bacteria on his leg, known as Mycobacterium Ulcerans.
The lesion usually starts off resembling a mosquito bite before progressing to a skin lesion.(Supplied: Anthony Fleming)
Transmission risk considered low

Professor Stinear runs the Beating Buruli research project which he said had shown if mosquito numbers were reduced, "we can stop this disease from spreading to people".

He said the risk of transmission in the Melbourne areas was considered low.

Usually the ulcer is associated with locations on the Mornington Peninsula, including Rye, Sorrento, Blairgowrie and Tootgarook.

Other coastal areas, including the Bellarine Peninsula and the Frankston and Seaford areas, have a moderate risk.

Cases have also been discovered in the south-eastern bayside suburbs and East Gippsland.

The disease is not transmissible from person to person, and there is no evidence of transmission between possums and humans, the department said.

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