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Flesh-eating bug prompts health warning -

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Flesh-eating bug prompts health warning

Reporter: Mick Bunworth

word flesh-eating bug.

DR JOHN CARNIE, VIC DEPUTY CHIEF HEALTH OFFICER: We try to avoid terms like flesh-eating bug.

MICK BUNWORTH: Understandably, perhaps, health officials are wary of such tabloid terms, but "eat
flesh" is exactly what Mycobacterium ulcerans, or Bairnsdale ulcer, does if left untreated. Last
July, the 7:30 Report brought you the story of the Victorian seaside town of Point Lonsdale, where
some residents had contracted Bairnsdale ulcer, so named after the town with the first recorded
outbreak , in 1948. Nationally, 35 people were diagnosed with the ulcer last year, but more than
half of those had visited or lived in Point Lonsdale, and the surrounding Bellarine Peninsula, 150
south-west of Melbourne.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR PAUL JOHNSON: Transmission of Mycobacterium ulcerans occurs relatively commonly
in Far North Queensland in a very small area, north of Mossman. There has been a case this year in
Darwin and another case last year. There has been a couple of cases in Rockhampton and along the
tropical north of Queensland. But much less common at the moment than we're seeing down here in
Victoria. For inexplicable reasons, it's not showing up in New South Wales or South Australia,
although things could change.

MICK BUNWORTH: Dr Paul Johnson is with Austin Health's infectious diseases department in Melbourne.
He's a world renowned authority on Mycobacterium ulcerans and helped to develop a diagnostic test.
Dr Johnson has also written a manual for those working with the disease in Africa, where it's known
as Buruli ulcer and can cripple sufferers if left untreated. In an effort to pin down the cause of
the disease, Dr Johnson's research team is monitoring the Bellarine Peninsula's mosquito
population. He believes they may just made a key discovery.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR PAUL JOHNSON: This is really the first time that adult mosquitoes have been
shown to have any trace of this organism on them. But that doesn't mean that it's how you get
infected. We have to keep our eye on the ball and make sure we consider all other options.

MICK BUNWORTH: Dr Johnson's research has been enough for health authorities to issue a warning to
Bellarine Peninsula residents and visitors.

DR JOHN CARNIE: We have new information to suggest that it has been found in mosquitoes. We don't
know what part mosquitoes play in the actual transmission, but it would be prudent to try to avoid
mosquito bites as far as possible.

MICK BUNWORTH: One of the Bairnsdale ulcer's highest-profile victims was former AFL player, coach
and now commentator David Parkin, whose family has owned a beach house in Point Lonsdale for 30
years. When the 7:30 Report interviewed him last year, he was recovering from a minor skin graft to
repair damage caused by an ulcer behind his knee.

DAVID PARKIN, AFL COMMENTATOR: Mine was a very small hole that you could put the end of your little
finger in. 15 stitches in the back to take out a fair swag of stuff last Friday, but the reality is
it's not something that you might think was a spider bite or a mosquito bite and take no notice of.

MICK BUNWORTH: On hearing today's news of a possible link with mosquitoes, David Parkin was just
grateful that research into Bairnsdale ulcer is continuing.

DAVID PARKIN: I'm not in the position of panicking people, but just alerting people that use my
house, and my grandchildren and kids. etc., that we should be careful, at least when we're in the
outdoors and if there is some - even small and not yet confirmed - relationship between march flies
or mosquitoes or whatever, then we should be aware of that and make sure we're as well protected as
we can be when we're in that environment.

MICK BUNWORTH: Dr Johnson will take his findings to a World Health Organisation Buruli ulcer
conference in Geneva next month. He expects skepticism from other researchers.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR PAUL JOHNSON: Our finding, it will be challenged because that's how science
works. You have to be able to defend your findings, but it opens new possibilities, because there's
still this mystery, even in Africa, where we know that some large biting water bugs have this
organism in their salivary glands but that don't explain how people nearby, but not in the water,
actually become infected. So it may be what happens in Victoria is quite different from west
Africa, but it would certainly open people's minds and perhaps some more mosquitoes will be trapped
over there and the same experiments done.

MICK BUNWORTH: Dr Johnson says more research will establish whether mosquitoes carry the bacteria
in their system, rather than just on their bodies.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR PAUL JOHNSON: It's in the mouth parts or in the salivary glands, that would
really increase the likelihood that it really is transmitting the infection, but the key experiment
will be to see whether we can get artificially infected mosquitoes under laboratory conditions to
actually infect an animal such as a mouse.

MICK BUNWORTH: Victorian health authorities say they're determined to solve the mystery of the
Bairnsdale ulcer. Is it fair to say that the Department won't rest until the mode of transmission
is found?

DR JOHN CARNIE: Certainly, that is the ultimate goal, is to try and find the mode of transmission,
and also then, what can we do about it? Because once you've found the mode of transmission, you
then have to try to determine what public health actions can be recommended to the public in trying
to reduce the risks of transmission.

DAVID PARKIN: There's been some conscientious work done by some very good people. I think in
big-picture stuff, in the finish, it will help people like me in this country, but it will
certainly be something that we can make - on the world scene, certainly, in Africa, where the
problem is quite severe.

MICK BUNWORTH: And with mosquito numbers booming after recent record rains, the people of the
Bellarine Peninsula will need little encouragement to cover up.