Definition of Buruli ulcer

Reviewed on 3/29/2021

Buruli ulcer: A disorder caused by infection with a member of the family of bacteria that causes tuberculosis and leprosy -- the bacterium Mycobacterium ulcerans -- that starts as a painless swelling in the skin, most commonly in the limbs (the arms and legs) and causes severely deforming ulcers. Complications include loss of organs such as the eye and breast, amputation of limbs and other permanent disabilities.

The disease starts as a painless swelling in the skin. A nodule develops beneath the skin's surface that is teeming with mycobacteria. The bacteria produce a toxin which destroys tissue and suppresses the immune system. Massive areas of skin and sometimes bone are destroyed causing grossly deforming ulcers, unique to Buruli ulcer and easy to recognize. When lesions heal, scarring may cause restricted movement of limbs and other permanent disabilities.

Most patients are children and women who live in rural areas near rivers or wetlands in at least 25 countries in Africa, the Western Pacific, Asia and Central and South America (including Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, etc). Buruli ulcer is named after an area of Uganda which was the site of many cases in the 1960s.

Early detection and treatment of Buruli ulcer can prevent complications. Current treatment is surgical excision. Antibiotics have been unsuccessful. If the disease is not detected early, treatment for those most severely afflicted can require long hospitalizations and great expense.


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