Buruli ulcer

Learn about Buruli ulcer and how to reduce your chance of contracting it.

What is Buruli ulcer?

Buruli ulcer is a skin infection caused by a bacteria called Mycobacterium ulcerans. The first sign of Buruli ulcer is usually a painless, non-tender nodule or papule. It is often mistaken for an insect or spider bite and is sometimes itchy.

The lesion may occur anywhere on the body, but it is most common on exposed areas of the limbs. In one or two months the lesion may break down or ulcerate. Over time the lesion can develop into a destructive skin ulcer which is known as Buruli ulcer or Bairnsdale ulcer.

Buruli ulcer is a bacterial disease that causes damage to the skin. If left untreated, it can lead to severe skin and limb damage, so early treatment is vital.

Occasionally people develop severe pain and fever.

How common is Buruli ulcer?

Case numbers are increasing in Victoria, with the disease spreading across the state.

Cases have been found in many parts of the Monash Health catchment, including Gippsland, Mornington Peninsula, Westernport, Phillip Island, and south-eastern suburbs.

Who is at risk?

Everyone is susceptible to infection. Disease can occur at any age, but Buruli ulcer notifications are highest in people aged 60 years and above in Victoria. The risk of contracting Buruli ulcer, however, is still considered low.

When recognised early, diagnostic testing is straightforward and prompt treatment can significantly reduce skin loss and tissue damage, as well as lead to more simplified treatment.

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How does it spread?

The disease does not spread from person to person.

Research has found both mosquitoes and possums play a role in disease transmission in Victoria. Protecting yourself against mosquito bites is likely to be an important way of preventing disease.

While there is no clear evidence of transmission from possums directly to humans, the bacteria that causes the ulcer is found in possum excrement.

Household members of people with Buruli ulcer should check for any non-healing skin lesions and see a GP as they may have been exposed to the same source.

How to reduce your chance of contracting Buruli ulcer

Prevention measures include reducing mosquito breeding sites, avoiding mosquito bites and covering cuts and abrasions with a dressing when spending time outdoors. In particular:

  • Reduce mosquito breeding sites around houses and other accommodation by reducing areas where water can pool (including pot plant containers, buckets, open tins or cans, discarded tyres, and other untreated, freshwater pools).
  • Mosquito proof your home by securing insect screens on accommodation.
  • Avoid mosquito bites by:
    • Using personal insect repellents containing diethyltoluamide (DEET) or picaridin
    • Covering up by wearing long, loose-fitting, light-coloured clothing
    • Avoiding mosquito-prone areas and vector biting times, especially at dusk and dawn.
  • When gardening, working or spending time outdoors:
    • Wear gardening gloves, long sleeved shirts and trousers
    • Wear insect repellent on any exposed skin
    • Protect cuts and abrasions with a dressing
    • Promptly wash any new scratches or cuts you receive with soap and apply a topical antiseptic and dressing.
  • Exposed skin contaminated by soil or water should be washed following outdoor activities.

More detailed advice on how to prevent mosquito bites and other tips can be found on the Better Health Channel.

What to do if you think you may have a Buruli ulcer

Early diagnosis is critical so as to prevent the problem from getting worse.

Please see your GP as soon as possible as early recognition and diagnosis is critical to prevent skin and tissue loss.

Public health laboratory testing for Buruli ulcer is free for patients.

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