Public health authorities have sent out a warning to at-risk residents along the Gulf Coast region of Mississippi to take extra precautions after an investigation discovered deadly bacteria living in the soil.
Officials say two people have gotten sick.
The investigation was launched after two unrelated residents became ill, one this year and another in 2020. Both were sickened by melioidosis in the area and are believed to have contracted it after they were exposed to a strain of a rare bacteria known as Burkholderia pseudomallei, which is typically seen only in tropical countries.
The bacteria was found in Puerto Rico, but Wednesday’s announcement marks the first time the bacteria has been found in the soil of a U.S. state.
Both individuals have since recovered, a spokesperson for Mississippi’s health department confirmed. The CDC added that the patients had been hospitalized for sepsis and were treated with antibiotics.
Patients typically develop symptoms a week after being exposed to the bacteria, which often comes from touching contaminated dirt or puddles, the CDC said.
Also coined the “great mimicker,” the disease is very challenging for doctors to diagnose because it comes with a wide range of symptoms.
Depending on which part of the body is infected, symptoms include fever, swelling, cough, joint pain, or seizures. Any organ can be infected by the bacteria, which also can include the brain, CBS News reported.
“Because of the identification of this bacteria on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, persons at high risk for severe infection living on the Gulf Coast should take recommended precautions,” Mississippi’s state epidemiologist, Dr. Paul Byers, said in a statement.
The bacteria is believed to have been in the area since at least 2020, and it poses a “very low” risk to the general public, the CDC said.
Many healthy people who are exposed to the bacteria never end up with melioidosis.
However, the two agencies say that some are at higher risk of severe disease and therefore need to take precautions.
Those precautions include avoiding mud, especially after heavy rains, and also wearing gloves and boots to avoid touching soil that is contaminated with Burkholderia pseudomallei.
“The most common underlying conditions that make a person more likely to become sick with or die from melioidosis include diabetes, excessive alcohol use, chronic lung disease, chronic kidney disease, and immunosuppressive conditions,” the CDC said.