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Mycobacterium ulcerans in wild animals 

F. Portaels (1), Chemlal(1), Eisen (1), P.D.R. Johnson(2), J.A. Hayman(3), J. Hibble(4), R. Kirkwood(5) & W.M. Meyers(6) 

(1) Mycobacteriology Unit, Institute of Tropical Medicine, Nationalestraat 155, 2000 Antwerpen, Belgium

(2) Department of Infectious Diseases and Clinical Epidemiology, Monash Medical Centre, Clayton, Victoria 3168, Australia

(3) Pathology Department, Box Hill Hospital, Melbourne, Victoria 3128, Australia

(4) Newhaven Veterinary Clinic, Phillip Island Nature Park, Phillip Island, Victoria 3922, Australia

(5) Phillip Island Nature Park, Phillip Island, Victoria 3922, Australia

(6) Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Washington, DC 20306, United States of America 


Mycobacterium ulcerans infection, or Buruli ulcer, is the third most frequent mycobacterial disease in humans, often causing serious deformities and disability. The disease is most closely associated with tropical wetlands, especially in west and central Africa. Most investigators believe that the aetiological agent proliferates in mud beneath stagnant waters. Modes of transmission may involve direct contact with the contaminated environment, aerosols from water surfaces, and water-dwelling fauna (e.g. insects). Person-to-person transmission is rare. Trauma at the site of skin contamination by M. ulcerans appears to play an important role in initiating disease. Once introduced into the skin or subcutaneous tissue, M. ulcerans multiplies and produces a toxin that causes necrosis. However, the type of disease induced varies from a localised nodule or ulcer, to widespread ulcerative or non-ulcerative disease and osteomyelitis. Although culture of M. ulceransfrom a patient was first reported in 1948, attempts to culture the mycobacterium from many specimens of flora and fauna have been unsuccessful. Failure to cultivate this organism from nature may be attributable to inadequate sampling, conditions of transport, decontamination and culture of this fastidious heat-sensitive organism, and to along generation time relative to that of other environmental mycobacteria. Nevertheless, recent molecular studies using specific primers have revealed M. ulcerans in water, mud, fish and insects. Although no natural reservoir has been found, the possibility that M. ulcerans may colonise microfauna such as free-living amoebae has not been investigated. The host range of experimental infection by M. ulcerans includes lizards, amphibians, chick embryos, possums, armadillos, rats, mice and cattle. Natural infections have been observed only in Australia, in koalas, ringtail possums and a captive alpaca. The lesions were clinically identical to those observed in humans. Mycobacterium ulcerans infection is a rapidly re-emerging disease in some developing tropical countries. The re-emergence may be related to environmental and socioeconomic factors, for example, deforestation leading to increased flooding, and population expansion without improved agricultural techniques, thus putting more people at risk. Eradication of diseases related to these factors is difficult. Whether wild animals have a role in transmission is an important question that, to date, has been virtually unexplored. To address this question, surveys of wild animals are urgently required in those areas in which Buruli ulcer is endemic. 

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