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Tracking down an emerging disease

11:08am, June 7, 2005

From New Orleans, at the Joint Assembly of the American Geophysical Union

By examining geographic patterns of outbreaks of a disfiguring skin disease in tropical nations, scientists are finding tentative clues about how the ailment spreads.

Known as Buruli ulcer, the disease is caused by Mycobacterium ulcerans, a microbe from the same group that causes tuberculosis and leprosy. Early symptoms of the illness include nodules beneath the skin. If untreated, skin inflammation leads to open sores that can eat into bone, ultimately requiring amputation, says M. Eric Benbow, an ecologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

No one yet knows how the disease spreads. One theory holds that bacteria on sediment suspended in the abundant bodies of water in tropical regions may get into scratches or open wounds and trigger infections. Another theory points to insect bites as the means of microbial transmission.

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