Melioidosis: the tip of the iceberg?
For nearly 80 years clinical melioidosis has been considered a rare disease. This bacterial infection is caused by Pseudomonas pseudomallei, a saprophyte found in soil and surface water of endemic areas. Consequently, those who have most contact with soil, the rural poor, are likely to be at greatest risk of infection. Since the diversity of clinical manifestations necessitates the isolation and identification of the causative organism for a definitive diagnosis of melioidosis and the population at greatest risk within endemic areas rarely have access to an appropriate level of health care, the disease has probably been underrecognized. Melioidosis is now known to be an important cause of human morbidity and mortality in Thailand, and this may be true throughout Southeast Asia, which is usually regarded as the main endemic area for the disease. In Australia, melioidosis causes a smaller number of human infections, while disease among livestock has important economic and possible public health implications. Sporadic reports of the infection indicate its presence in several other tropical regions: in the Indian subcontinent, Africa, and Central and South America. Clinical melioidosis may be highly prevalent in these areas, but underdiagnosed as a result of a lack of awareness of the clinical and microbiological features of the disease, or simply because of a lack of health care facilities. Furthermore, during the last two decades the importation and transmission of melioidosis within nontropical zones have been documented. The causative organism is not difficult to grow, and modern antibiotics have improved disease prognosis. Further studies are needed to determine the true worldwide distribution and prevalence of melioidosis so that improved therapeutic and preventive measures can be developed and applied.