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Millersville Prof Helps Solve 80-year Mystery

Mosquitoes Spread Flesh-eating Buruli Ulcer

Photo of Dr. John Wallace in the Stinear lab at the Doherty Institute University of Melbourne.
Dr. John Wallace in the Stinear lab at the Doherty Institute University of Melbourne.

Biting insects have been the bane of many people’s existence throughout the millennia, but they have allowed Dr. John Wallace to make a living through his research over the last three decades. As an expert medical entomologist, he taught students about the study of insects and researched them while he was a biology professor at Millersville University. Now, a collaborative research effort in Victoria, Australia, has been used to indict mosquitos as vectors that spread the bacterium that causes the flesh-eating disease known as Buruli ulcer in Australia. “Buruli ulcer is one of the World Health Organization’s 21 neglected tropical diseases – found in 32 countries around the world,” Wallace stated.

In a major breakthrough published in “Nature Microbiology,” researchers led by the University of Melbourne’s Professor Tim Stinear, Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Mycobacterium ulcerans at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, have solved the 80-year Mystery that has baffled scientists and public health experts and has been a central question that has perplexed scientists since the discovery of M. ulcerans in the 1940s,” said Stinear.

A collaborative International research team brought together partners from the Doherty Institute at the University of Melbourne, Bio21 Institute, Agriculture Victoria, Austin Health, Victorian Department of Health, Millersville University, the Mornington Peninsular Shire and others to focus their efforts on surveying more than 65,000 mosquitoes between 2016-2021, possum feces and human cases in the Mornington Peninsula in the southern state of Victoria, a region with an alarming surge in cases and one of the highest incidences of Buruli ulcer in the world. The findings of this study confirm mosquitoes are the primary vectors transmitting M. ulcerans from the environment to people in Australia.

Photo of Dr. John Wallace and Professor Tim Stinear.
Dr. John Wallace has been collaborating with Professor Tim Stinear since 2006.

Wallace has been collaborating with the Stinear lab since 2006 on field and mosquito transmission studies and elaborated on the global importance of these findings, “By linking field surveys with pathogen genomics, we have addressed the essential criteria that support a collection of evidence implicating mosquitoes as mechanical vectors of M. ulcerans from local wildlife reservoirs to humans, in other words, we have provided valuable support for a transmission chain among mosquitoes, possums and humans – a watershed moment of sorts in disease ecology. While the mode of transmission may be different in other countries, this breakthrough moment in Buruli ulcer research provides an extensive framework to address more precisely the mode of transmission of M. ulcerans to people in other parts of the world and augment the roadmap to intervene and control Buruli ulcer in these countries,” explains Wallace.

To stem the tide of Buruli cases in Australia, Professor Paul Johnson, infectious diseases physician at Austin Health in Victoria, highlighted the role of managing mosquito populations to mitigate the risk of Buruli ulcer. “Taking steps to reduce the numbers of mosquitoes and prevent mosquito bites is likely to be an effective way to control the spread of the disease,” said Johnson. “Simple actions, like applying insect repellent and removing stagnant water around the house, are a good start to protect the community and reduce the risk of Buruli ulcer.”

For more information on mosquito protection, visit the Victorian Department of Health website at https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/campaigns/beat-the-bite.

 

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