Apr 05, 2019

Workplace health watch – melioidosis

Workplace health watch – melioidosis

Widespread flooding in North Queensland was quickly followed by news of people falling victim to the ‘mud bug’ – melioidosis.

Seventeen people have received hospital treatment for melioidosis across the Townsville Public Health Unit area (Townsville, Mackay and Mount Isa regions) this year – and two of those patients have died.

So how worried should workers regularly exposed to floodwaters and exposed earth be?

Most civil contractors should have no cause for alarm given the disease very rarely affects healthy adults or children.

The Townsville Hospital and Health Service says all 17 affected patients were either elderly or had an underlying chronic illness.

Risk factors can include diabetes or airway disease, immunosuppressive medication and excessive alcohol intake.

Melioidosis is caused by an uncommon soil bacteria that is present in tropical north Australia and is treatable by antibiotics.

Its occurrence is seasonal, with eight cases recorded in the Townsville Public Health Unit area in 2018.

Townsville Public Health Unit acting director Dr Julie Mudd  said it was a serious infection with a general mortality rate of 20 per cent.

Infection may occur when wounds have direct contact with contaminated soil or surface water, or through the respiratory system.

Queensland Health says symptoms usually develop within three weeks of exposure, with cases acquired through the respiratory system progressing more rapidly than those acquired by wound infection.

Dr Mudd said acute onset cases presented with pneumonia-like symptoms that could seem very much like ‘flu.

These included shortness of breath, cough, fevers, headache, loss of appetite, chest pain and general muscle soreness.

The symptoms of cases acquired through wounds include redness, pain and swelling at the site, followed by fevers and becoming unwell.

Appropriate footwear and work gloves offer some protection against infection.

So do good hygiene measures like washing any wounds, keeping them out of dirt and muddy water, and applying antiseptic and dressing.

Dr Mudd said while not every case could be prevented, these simple measures could help protect the public.

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