A flesh-eating disease common in third world countries is infecting parts of Victoria at increasingly epidemic rates and doctors have no idea why.
Mycobacterium Ulcerans, an infection which eats away at the limbs like gangrene, has more than doubled in Victoria in the last year with 240 new cases. In the past few months nine people have been diagnosed with it each week.
The disease, also known as the Bairnsdale Ulcer, is strangely migrating from the Bellarine peninsula to the Mornington peninsula, which has become a hot-spot for the disease.
WARNING: Graphic images below.
Ella Crofts, an active and healthy 13-year-old from Tyabb, was struck down with Mycobacterium Ulcerans in April and is still trying to recover from the disease that turned her knee into a festering sore the size of her palm.
Her mother Lucy Burns, who is also a GP, told Nine.com.au that when her daughter first complained of a sore knee there were no visible signs of the disease.
“There was nothing to see, then it started to look a little swollen around the knee but nothing too much to worry about,” Dr Burns said.
“A couple of days later it started to get the smallest of sores like a scab or a carpet burn and then a bit of redness around it.”
Ella’s parents took her to a local GP, who put her on antibiotics, but the wound continued to get worse.
The ulcer is not normally painful, but in Ella’s case it was excruciatingly so, Dr Burns said.
“She was on really high strong painkillers and then the pain settled.”
“Initially, she would get around on crutches or limp.”
Swab tests for bacteria came back negative, but Ella’s father – who also has a medical background – was concerned about the possibility of Mycobacterium Ulcerans, and pushed for a biopsy which eventually confirmed the disease.
Ella has since endured three operations to clean out the dead tissue around her knee and is still walking with a limp.
The wound is healing, but very slowly, Dr Burns said.
“It’s still not looking that great. We call it the zombie leg,” she said.
The schoolgirl this week started an online petition calling for Health Minister Greg Hunt – who is also her local MP – to provide more funding for research into the disease and has already collected more than 6700 signatures.
Ella’s doctor, Daniel O’Brien, who is one of the world’s leading infectious disease experts and operates out of the Royal Melbourne and Geelong hospitals, told Nine.com.au that Mycobacterium Ulcerans was an epidemic that needed to be addressed urgently.
“Bottom line is we had 70 percent more cases last year than we have ever had and we are more than double this year already on last year,” he said.
Just as worryingly, the number of severe cases of the disease, such as Ella’s, had doubled in the last five years, he said.
“We don’t know why. I can only suspect that the organism has adapted or mutated or evolved so it is becoming more virulent and causing more severe cases,” he said.
The first case of Mycobacterium Ulcerans – which is found in mostly African countries such as Uganda, Nigeria and Liberia – was spotted at Bairnsdale in East Gippsland in 1948 and then moved westward across the state.
The disease popped up in Phillip Island in the 90s and in the early 2000s it appeared in the Bellarine Peninsula.
Dr O’Brien said it was still a puzzle as to why the disease was migrating around the state and not much was even known about how it was spread.
“There are theories about transmission via mosquitos, theories about it being in the soil and getting through wounds, theories about whether some animals are involved in that we know that some possums can be affected by it.
“But we don’t actually know where it lives, why it’s there and how it gets spread to humans. How can we possibility halt an epidemic when we don’t have that basic information?”
Dr O’Brien said funding was desperately needed for scientists to conduct more research into the disease.
“I’m at the forefront as a clinician trying to treat patients and getting more and more overwhelmed but also distressed at the fact that we are doing nothing to try and prevent people getting it in the first place,” he said.
“For me this is an urgent health problem that our community needs addressed and I think our government should be putting significant amounts of money into trying to stop it and that means research.”
© Nine Digital Pty Ltd 2017