Flesh-eating Buruli ulcer is spreading from coastal towns to inner-Melbourne cities, experts reveal. Cases of the ulcer have increased more than three times in five years.

Health experts explain that Buruli ulcer or Bairnsdale ulcer is an infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium ulcerans, which suppresses the immune system and eats away skin and capillaries. It can be spread by mosquitoes, causing extreme pain if left unchecked.

Researchers reveal that in 2010, only 32 patients were diagnosed with the disease but it has since increased to 106 in 2015. Up to 45 have been affected in 2016 thus far. The disease has spread even to Bentleigh, Hampton, Cheltenham and other southeast suburbs in Melbourne.

Buruli ulcer

Jan Smith. Credit: Unique Adventure

As of now, experts cannot determine what caused this disease to move this far. According to Paul Johnson, an expert on Buruli ulcer, the cases are rapidly increasing but no one understands why.

One of the victims is Jan Smith, a 72-year-old Victorian who became the second oldest person to reach the top of Mount Everest in 2012. She got infected while training to climb Mount Denali in Alaska, the highest mountain in North America.

Smith, who works as a clinical psychologist, went to the emergency department when the mosquito bite on her left ankle got swollen in April. Smith describes that the mosquito bite increased to double the size of her foot.

Smith says that it kept getting bigger. Initially, doctors diagnosed Smith’s condition as simply a soft tissue infection. They gave her antibiotics for nearly one month.

“I couldn’t sleep because of the pain,” Smith says. “I had a huge hole in my foot. My husband said ‘I want to throw up because I see your bone’. It’s a very devastating thing.”

It only started to heal when it was diagnosed correctly. Fortunately, Smith does not have to amputate her leg but would probably require plastic surgery. Still, Smith is positive that she will climb Mount Denali one day.

Experts suggest the use of covering clothing as well as the application of insect repellents to prevent this disease. They also advice people infected to seek medical care as soon as possible.