Buruli Ulcer: A Dangerous Yet Neglected Disease

Buruli Ulcer: A Dangerous Yet Neglected Disease


Neglected Disease

Buruli Ulcer, often abbreviated as BU, is a debilitating skin disease caused by Mycobacterium ulcerans infection. Despite being a significant health concern, it remains one of the lesser-known diseases globally. In this comprehensive article, we delve deep into the intricacies of Buruli Ulcer, its impact, symptoms, treatment options, and prevention measures. By shedding light on this neglected disease, we aim to raise awareness and provide valuable insights into its management.

The Global Burden

Neglected Disease

The first documented description of Buruli Ulcer dates back to 1948. Since then, cases of M. ulcerans infections have been reported in 34 countries, primarily in regions with tropical and subtropical climates. In 2004, a staggering 5,954 BU cases were reported worldwide, signifying the severity of the disease. However, in recent years, there has been a gradual decline in the number of reported cases, with 1,952 cases documented in 2016 by the World Health Organization (WHO).

It is essential to note that underreporting is a prevalent issue due to BU’s prevalence in remote areas with limited access to healthcare facilities. This disease ranks as the third most common mycobacterial disease, trailing behind tuberculosis and leprosy.

Transmission and Epidemiology

Neglected Disease

The precise mode of transmission of M. ulcerans remains unclear, but it is closely linked to wetlands. Although not conclusively proven, one hypothesis suggests that the disease may be transmitted to humans through contact with water-dwelling insects. Interestingly, some animals have also been found to contract Buruli Ulcer. For instance, in Victoria, Australia, laboratory tests confirmed the presence of BU in various animals, including horses, dogs, alpacas, koalas, and possums.

Recognizing the Symptoms

Neglected Disease

Identifying Buruli Ulcer is crucial for timely intervention. The disease manifests through several distinctive symptoms, including:

1. Skin Swelling

  • Affected areas exhibit noticeable skin swelling, often leading to deformities.

2. Destruction of Skin and Soft Tissue

  • BU can cause severe damage to the skin and underlying soft tissues, resulting in open wounds.

3. Slow-Growing Ulcers

  • One or more ulcers develop gradually, typically without causing significant pain.

Complications and Long-Term Effects

If left untreated, Buruli Ulcer can lead to various complications and long-term effects, including:

1. Deformity

  • The disease can cause physical deformities, especially if it affects joints or bones.

2. Functional Disability

  • BU may limit joint movement and result in functional disabilities.

3. Bone Infection

  • In some cases, the infection can spread to the bones, leading to bone infections.

4. Secondary Bacterial Infections

  • Open ulcer lesions are vulnerable to secondary bacterial infections, complicating the condition further.

Global Distribution

Neglected Disease

Buruli Ulcer has a wide geographic distribution, with cases reported in at least 33 countries across tropical, subtropical, and temperate regions. Notably, 15 of these countries report between 5,000 to 6,000 cases annually, with the majority of cases concentrated in rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa. Alarmingly, nearly half of those affected in Africa are children under the age of 15.

Treatment and Advancements

Neglected Disease

Historically, surgical excision was the primary treatment for Buruli Ulcer. Patients often required multiple surgeries and extensive skin grafts, resulting in prolonged hospitalizations averaging around three months. Recurrence rates post-surgery were high, ranging from 16% to 28%. However, advancements in medical science have introduced antibiotics as a game-changer in BU treatment. Approximately 40% of patients no longer require surgery when antibiotics are administered.

In combination with antibiotics, surgery is still used to remove damaged tissue, apply skin grafts, and address deformities. It’s worth noting that despite BU traditionally being considered painless due to the neurotoxic effects of mycolactone (the toxin produced by M. ulcerans), many patients experience pain during wound care, which necessitates effective pain management strategies.

Innovations in Wound Care

Neglected Disease

Currently, gauze is the standard dressing used for Buruli Ulcer wound care. However, this often results in pain and bleeding when removed. Ongoing research is crucial to determine more suitable dressings that minimize patient discomfort. Moreover, ensuring access to clean water and promoting good hygiene practices are vital for effective BU management and preventing secondary infections.

Prevention Strategies

Neglected Disease

Preventing Buruli Ulcer is of paramount importance, and several strategies can help reduce the risk of infection:

1. Mosquito Control

  • Eliminate mosquito breeding sites, such as stagnant water in containers, to reduce insect populations around homes.

2. Mosquito-Proofing

  • Install insect screens on accommodations to prevent mosquito entry.

3. Personal Protection

  • Use insect repellents containing diethyltoluamide (DEET) or picaridin to avoid mosquito bites.

4. Proper Clothing

  • Wear long, loose-fitting, light-colored clothing to minimize skin exposure.

5. Outdoor Safety

  • When working or spending time outdoors, wear protective clothing and apply insect repellent to exposed skin.

6. Wound Care

  • Promptly clean and dress any new scratches or cuts with soap and antiseptic after outdoor activities, especially if skin is exposed to soil or water.


Neglected Disease

In conclusion, Buruli Ulcer is a dangerous yet often neglected disease with a global presence. Despite its decreasing incidence in recent years, BU remains a significant health concern, particularly in remote communities with limited access to healthcare. Recognizing the symptoms, understanding the treatment options, and implementing effective prevention strategies are critical steps in combatting this debilitating disease. By sharing knowledge and raising awareness, we can work towards reducing the burden of Buruli Ulcer and improving the lives of those affected by it.


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