Australia is facing a “rapidly worsening epidemic” of gruesome flesh-eating ulcers that have baffled experts and prompted calls for urgent medical research to uncover the cause.
Scientists said the Buruli ulcer, a bacterial infection which is most commonly seen in tropical parts of Africa, is being reported in increasing numbers in “temperate” rural areas in the state of Victoria.
The number of annual cases has increased more than 400 per cent, with a record 182 cases reported in 216 and 236 in the first 11 months of 2017.
“The community is facing a worsening epidemic, defined by cases rapidly increasing in number, becoming more severe in nature, and occurring in new geographic areas,” said an article on the outbreak in the Medical Journal of Australia.
The infection typically starts as a sore on the arm or leg that fails to heal and slowly enlarges, causing severe lesions of the skin and potentially requiring amputations. Sufferers often initially dismiss the initial symptoms as an insect bite.
"It can really become very severe and eats away at the skin and soft tissue … leading to, often, long-term cosmetic deformities, even mobility issues and occasionally it's actually associated with death," Professor Daniel O'Brien, the article’s lead author and an infectious diseases expert, told ABC News.
The outbreak has occurred in coastal areas in Victoria, including the Bellarine and Mornington peninsulas.
But it has also reportedly spread to some suburbs in Melbourne, the country’s second-largest city. It is believed to be the only current outbreak in the developed world.
Scientists have called for urgent funding to research the causes of the outbreak. The infection is believed to spread via mosquitoes and possums.
"We actually don't know for sure — we have some clues about what may be the causes, but nobody really knows why it's located here, why it moves into new areas, and in fact how we catch it," Professor O’Brien said.
Known as Mycobacterium ulcerans, the infection can often be treated with antibiotics, though severe cases can require surgery or amputation.
Gus Charles, a 12-year-old, developed a lump on his knee after visiting the Mornington Peninsula for a family holiday. Several doctors misdiagnosed it before a surgeon sliced into the lump and found a “huge pus-filled abscess”, according to a report in Fairfax Media.
Gus eventually underwent plastic surgery and spent six months recovering.
"When I first saw it after surgery I fainted because it was pretty bad," he told ABC News.
His mother, Sally, told Fairfax Media: “He complained about it a bit, but he’s a pretty tough kid. And then the lump started to get bigger and bigger."
She added: “It was horrible. He’s a tough kid, but he was rocked by this.”