Beware of melioidosis in the Top End

2 Nov 2023

Top End residents and visitors are being urged to take extra precaution to avoid melioidosis ahead of the wet season.

Source: NT Health

Melioidosis is a disease caused by the bacterium, Burkholderia pseudomallei, found in tropical soil and water.

“People are more likely to come in contact with the bacteria during the wet season, when bacteria increase after heavy rains and concentrate in the soil surface layers,” said Royal Darwin Hospital and Menzies Professor of Medicine, Bart Currie.

“On average around 50 cases of melioidosis are reported in the Northern Territory each year, with the vast majority of those diagnosed between November and April,” said Professor Currie.

Case numbers in the most recent wet season (1 October 2022 to 30 April 2023) were higher than usual, with NT Health recording 80 cases of melioidosis and six deaths in the Northern Territory.

Melioidosis bacteria can enter the body through cuts and sores. When it’s wet and windy, the bacteria can be blown around in the air and inhaled through dust and droplets.

“Melioidosis most often causes lung infections and can also affect various other parts of the body, including causing skin sores that don’t easily heal,” said Professor Currie. “If left untreated, melioidosis can lead to severe pneumonia and blood poisoning, with around 10 per cent of infections leading to death.”

Symptoms usually develop within one to three weeks of a person being exposed to the bacteria, but in some cases, illness may not occur until several months or years after the initial infection.

The first sign of melioidosis is commonly a chest infection. Other symptoms can include:

  • fever and sweats
  • headache
  • confusion
  • difficulty passing urine for men
  • joint pain or swelling
  • skin sores that don’t heal.

People are advised to seek medical attention early to ensure prompt diagnosis and treatment. Treatment requires hospital admission and intensive antibiotic therapy.

People with underlying health conditions that lower immunity are more likely to develop melioidosis. This includes those with diabetes, heavy alcohol intake, kidney and lung disease, people who take immune suppression therapy medications, cancer, and advanced age.

To avoid melioidosis, the following precautions should be taken:

  • wear covered waterproof footwear when outdoors
  • wear gloves while working in the garden or a soil-based environment
  • wash then cover sores and abrasions with waterproof dressings
  • wear a face mask while using high pressure hoses around soil and paths
  • stay indoors during heavy wind and rain
  • seek medical attention early.

Melioidosis does not usually spread from one person to another or from animals to humans.

More information about melioidosis is available at

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