Melioidosis is a condition that occurs when someone comes into contact with certain bacteria in infected water or soil.

Some medical professionals also call this condition “Whitmore’s disease,” after the pathologist who first described it.

Although melioidosis is most common in southeast Asia and northern Australia, several other countries have also reported it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Keep reading to learn more about melioidosis, including its symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment options.

a woman with a headache because of melioidosisShare on Pinterest
A person with a bloodstream infection from melioidosis may experience headache, breathing problems, and fever.

Melioidosis is rare in the United States. In fact, according to the CDC, there are around zero to five cases on an annual basis.

The condition can occur when someone comes into contact with the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei, which exists in both soil and water.

Melioidosis diagnoses are usually in those who have traveled to an area outside of the U.S. where melioidosis occurs more commonly. Some examples of these areas include:

  • Malaysia
  • northern Australia
  • Singapore
  • Thailand

That being said, there are many other countries where people can come into contact with the bacterium and contract melioidosis.

People with a chronic medical condition and those with weak immune systems have a higher risk of melioidosis.

Some examples of these conditions include:

  • diabetes
  • liver disease
  • kidney disease
  • cancer
  • chronic lung conditions

Melioidosis can affect people in different ways, causing a wide range of symptoms.

Most people will experience the condition within 2–4 weeks of their first exposure to the bacterium. However, it is possible for a person to go years without experiencing any symptoms.

A person can contract the bacterial infection that leads to melioidosis through different areas of their body. Different symptoms can occur depending on the body area.

Some examples include:

Bloodstream infections

These may cause the following symptoms:

  • breathing problems
  • confusion
  • fever
  • headache
  • joint pain
  • stomach pain

Localized skin infections

These may cause the following symptoms:

  • fever
  • foul-smelling discharge from a wound
  • localized pain
  • redness
  • swelling
  • ulcerated skin appearance

Pulmonary infections

These may cause the following symptoms:

  • chest pain
  • coughing
  • fever
  • headache
  • a loss of appetite

Multisystem, or septic, infections

These may cause the following symptoms:

  • chest pain
  • fever
  • headache
  • joint pain
  • seizures
  • stomach pain
  • weight loss

According to an article in the journal Nature Reviews Disease Primers, an estimated 89,000 people die worldwide from melioidosis every year. When a person has a septic form of melioidosis, mortality rates are as high as 90%.

A person can get melioidosis when they come into contact with water or soil that carries the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei.

This can happen if a person:

  • comes into contact with contaminated soil, especially via skin cuts or abrasions
  • drinks contaminated water
  • inhales dust or water droplets

Human-to-human transmission is rare. However, it is possible for a person to transmit the bacterium to another person.

Doctors can treat melioidosis infections directly and administer medications and other therapies to reduce the symptoms that the condition causes.

First, they will usually administer intravenous antibiotics, such as ceftazidime or meropenem, for 10–14 days.

After this time, the doctor will prescribe 3–6 months of oral antimicrobial medications. These include trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole and amoxicillin-clavulanic acid.

A person must complete the full prescribed treatment for melioidosis. This reduces the likelihood of the infection returning.

A doctor will diagnose melioidosis by asking a person about their symptoms, considering their travel history, and conducting a physical examination.

Melioidosis infections can closely resemble other infections. These include pneumonia and tuberculosis. A doctor can usually tell the difference by collecting samples of the person’s:

  • blood
  • pus
  • sputum
  • urine

A laboratory technician will then “culture,” or smear, these specimens on petri dishes, where they will observe them for bacterial growth.

If a doctor suspects melioidosis, they may also order imaging studies. These include CT and MRI scans.

Doctors rarely use imaging studies for diagnosis, but they can be useful in determining the degree to which the condition has affected a person’s body. For example, melioidosis can cause abscesses to develop on the liver, spleen, or lungs. These will be visible in imaging tests.

A person should see their doctor as soon as possible if they suspect that they have melioidosis.

This is especially important if a person has traveled to a country where melioidosis is common, and where they may have come into contact with infected soil or water.

Several strategies exist to help reduce the risk of spreading and contracting melioidosis. These include:

  • always covering open wounds, especially when coming into contact with stagnant water and soil
  • wearing protective boots, with no holes or rips, when working in soil and stagnant water
  • if working in a healthcare facility, taking the standard safety precautions, such as by wearing a mask, gloves, and a gown

If a person at greater risk of melioidosis — such as those with diabetes or a weak immune system — is traveling to an area where melioidosis is common, they should talk to their doctor about other preventive tips and safety precautions.

Melioidosis is a condition that spreads through coming into contact with bacteria in infected water or soil.

If a person suspects that they have melioidosis, they need immediate medical attention.