Maryland woman contracts melioidosis bacteria from fish tank

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Maryland woman contracts melioidosis bacteria from fish tank

A Maryland woman is believed to be the first in the world to contract an extremely rare life-threatening bacterial disease from her own freshwater aquarium filled with imported tropical fish, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The 56-year-old woman was hospitalized back in 2019 after she became infected with melioidosis – a foreign bacteria that is very rarely found in the US, according to a new report published this month in the CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases journal.

Melioidosis is typically only found in tropical areas — particularly South Asia and Australia — but when cases are uncovered in the US they are usually linked to people who have traveled internationally.  

The Maryland woman, who had never been outside the US, is the first known person in the world to contract melioidosis from a home aquarium, the report said. Contamination of aquarium water used to transport fish from Singapore to France has previously been detected, according to the report.

The woman was admitted to hospital suffering from a fever, cough and chest pain in mid-September 2019.

Fish in a tank.
Melioidosis is typically only found in tropical areas, particularly South Asia and Australia.
Shutterstock/Tony Stock

In total, she spent three weeks in hospital and took antibiotics for more than four months before the infection finally cleared.    

An investigation later revealed that the woman’s home aquarium contained the same bacteria that had been found in her body.

The woman said she’d bought two aquariums, gravel and nine fish, including cherry barbs, fancy-tailed guppies and tiger barbs, from a retail store in July 2019.

She recalled sticking her bare hands and arms into the water and gravel to clean the tanks in August 2019 before she fell ill.  

Six of the woman’s fish also died between August and November 2019, but it wasn’t immediately clear if the bacteria played a role.

Fish tank.
Officials warn melioidosis can be contracted by ingestion of or direct contact with contaminated water or soil.
Shutterstock/Michael C. Gray

Officials warn melioidosis can be contracted by ingesting contaminated water and soil, or direct contact with contaminated water or soil through cuts or abrasions.

The report went on to urge US doctors to now consider melioidosis in patients with symptoms who have had exposure to tropical fish and freshwater aquariums.  

The emergence of the Maryland case came after the CDC revealed in August they were investigating cases of melioidosis after two people died and two others fell seriously ill when the disease was detected in Georgia, Kansas, Texas and Minnesota.

None of those four patients, including a four-year-old Texas girl, had traveled internationally either and investigators are still trying to determine the cause of those cases.

The CDC “believes the most likely cause is an imported product (such as a food or drink, personal care or cleaning products or medicine) or an ingredient in one of those types of products,” a statement from the agency said.

The Maryland woman is not believed to be linked to the recent four cases.

Melioidosis is caused by the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei, and can take several weeks to set in after exposure.

Symptoms can include cough and shortness of breath, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, intermittent fever and body rashes, according to the CDC.

Risk factors for developing the disease include diabetes, liver or kidney disease, chronic lung disease, cancer or other conditions that weaken the immune system.

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