Protect yourself against melioidosis during cyclone clean-up

24 February 2011

In the aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Carlos, Top End residents and visitors are being urged to continue protecting themselves from the potentially life-threatening soil-borne disease, melioidosis.

"Melioidosis is seen most frequently after heavy rain, which is why it is particularly important to protect against it at this time of year," Director of the Centre for Disease Control, Dr Vicki Krause said.

"Usually there are 25 to 30 cases of melioidosis reported in the Northern Territory each year," Dr Krause said.

"In the 12 months to 1 October 2010 (the start of this Wet Season), a record number of 91 cases were seen. This increase looks to be continuing into this year with 45 cases already reported since then."

Dr Krause said melioidosis is an environmental bacterium and a common cause of serious pneumonia and blood poisoning in the Top End.

"The bacteria live below the soil's surface during the Dry Season and are found in surface water and mud and can even become airborne after heavy rain," she said.

"It enters the body through cuts and sores in the skin, but acquiring the bacteria via inhalation of dust or droplets is also possible."

People most at risk are those with health concerns such as diabetes, hazardous alcohol intake, kidney disease, lung disease and cancer, as well as those on steroid therapy.

Healthy people can get the disease if they are working in muddy soil without good hand and foot protection.

"People with risk factors are advised to stay indoors during periods of heavy wind and rain. People who work with soil, such as gardeners and building tradespeople, should always wear protective clothing.

The following activities can increase the risk of exposure to the bacteria:

  • ·        walking in muddy water
  • ·        handling water or mud-soaked items
  • ·        high pressure hosing in the clean up after flooding

"The symptoms of melioidosis can vary. The most common presentation we see is for pneumonia, with a cough, fever and shortness of breath," Dr Krause said.

The incubation period for acute melioidosis can range from one to 21 days, with some people becoming extremely ill within a few days of exposure to the bacteria.

Symptoms which can develop in a few days include:

  • ·        fever
  • ·        headaches
  • ·        confusion and
  • ·        breathing difficulties

Symptoms slower to develop are:

  • ·        weight loss
  • ·        intermittent fevers
  • ·        chest and abdominal pain
  • ·        sores that won't heal

"We have seen four deaths due to melioidosis this Wet Season. Those most at risk of dying from the disease are people who have one or more risk factors."

To avoid contracting melioidosis, DoH recommends:

  • ·        wearing waterproof footwear in muddy and pooled water areas
  • ·        wearing gloves when handling soil or mud-soaked items
  • ·        protect your skin from cuts and abrasions
  • ·        washing broken skin which has come in to contact with soil or muddy water straight away

If concerned about melioidosis please contact your local GP or hospital.

A fact sheet with more information on melioidosis is available at:

Media Contact: Bridget Wild                   89 992 751      or          0431 619 902