Detection of Mycobacterium ulcerans in the environment predicts prevalence of Buruli ulcer in Benin
Buruli ulcer, a severe, cutaneous disease in West and Central Africa is caused by Mycobacterium ulcerans. Person-to-person spread of M. ulcerans is rare. There is a strong epidemiological association with residence near slow moving water, but lack of accurate case data in Africa has greatly complicated transmission studies of M. ulcerans from the environment to humans.
We have combined molecular tools for identification of M. ulcerans in the environment with accurate Buruli ulcer case data based on a long standing active surveillance program to map the association between Buruli ulcer and M. ulcerans in the environment in Benin. We found a positive association between M. ulcerans in the environment and Buruli ulcer cases and show that as the numbers of M. ulcerans positive samples/village increase so does the prevalence of Buruli ulcer. Many environmental pathogens are widespread in the environment in the absence of human disease. The failure to obtain definitive proof for M. ulcerans in environmental samples where Buruli ulcer is absent raises the intriguing possibility that humans play a role in the distribution of M. ulcerans.
Sampling methods we have developed could be especially useful for identifying new areas where people may be at risk for Buruli ulcer.