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Professor Sharon Peacock – Lucy Cavendish Talks

This was part of the Science Festival programme and was held at Lucy Cavendish.
There was a disappointingly small audience for what was a fascinating and well-structured talk pitched for a generalist public about a subject we should all know more intimately.
My guess is that the title put people off ‘Melioidosis – the paddy field disease’; something more along the lines of ‘The disease to avoid when travelling in Thailand’ may have attracted more attention. Professor Peacock described this unfamiliar disease that is probably very under-recorded around the world as having symptoms which mimic those of many others, but which can result in death through generalised septicaemia. The bug is Burkholderia pseudomallei, closley related to the one that causes glanders in horses, which lives in soil and can be inhaled via dust – as with US veterans near helicopters – or can enter through open wounds when working under water, hence the epithet ‘paddy-field disease’, or when swimming in soil-contaminated water.

An aside-note here: the Germans used the animal bacterium in real germ-warfare on the Eastern Front during the First World War to attack the Russian army, with devastating effect. The acute infection in humans starts with respiratory problems and continues with ulcers and abscesses throughout the body, septicaemia and finally death through pneumonia-like symptoms. Treatment with long-term high-dose antibiotics can cure the acute condition, but patients can contract the bug and live with it chronically for many years before a generalised septicaemia and death will happen. The disease is endemic in Thailand and northern Australia.

Penny Coggill

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