Department of Health

Beating Buruli in Victoria

This research project aims to better understand how Buruli ulcer is transmitted and to determine effective ways to prevent and reduce infections.

Key messages

  • Buruli (also known as Bairnsdale) ulcer is an infection of the subcutaneous tissue caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium (M.) ulcerans
  • In Victoria, there is increasing evidence that mosquitoes and possums have a role in transmitting the infection.
  • The infection is not spread from person-to-person.
  • Buruli ulcer is spreading geographically across Victoria and is no longer restricted to specific locations, however the overall risk of transmission is considered low.
  • The number of cases in Victoria varies widely from year to year, but numbers have been increasing to between 200-340 cases per year since 2017.
  • The 'Beating Buruli in Victoria' project hopes to actively disrupt disease transmission for the first time, by developing evidence-based policies and guidelines to stop the spread of Buruli ulcer around Victoria and even globally. 

The ‘Beating Buruli in Victoria’ research project

Buruli ulcer has been consistently recorded in Victoria for more than two decades, and human cases have been increasing in number and spreading to new areas in recent years. 

The ‘Beating Buruli in Victoria’ research project was launched in 2018, with funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the Victorian Department of Health. It is a multidisciplinary and collaborative partnership between the Department of Health, Doherty Institute, University of Melbourne, Barwon Health, Austin Health, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Agriculture Victoria and the Mornington Peninsula Shire Council.

By identifying more precisely when and where Buruli ulcer transmission occurs, including the specific mosquito and possum species involved, and testing methods of mosquito control targeting the places and times of highest risk, this project hopes to actively disrupt Buruli ulcer transmission for the first time. It is hoped these findings will lead to the development of evidence-based policies and guidelines that can help reduce and prevent cases of Buruli ulcer in Victoria and perhaps globally.

Ongoing research in 2022-2023

  • Mosquito lab work: The mosquitoes that were collected during previous research activities are being processed to determine how many of them were carrying M. ulcerans. By identifying geographic areas where mosquitoes carry M. ulcerans are, we can focus our interventions in these higher-risk areas. We are also undertaking sophisticated mosquito genomic modelling to see how far mosquito populations are travelling and spreading M. ulcerans
  • Possum faecal (excreta) surveys are continuing across Melbourne, Greater Geelong and the Mornington and Bellarine Peninsulas. Field staff collect possum excreta that are screened for M. ulcerans in the lab. This identifies geographic areas in which the bacteria are being actively shed into the environment by infected possums.
  • Possum surveillance studies involve monitoring free-ranging possums in parts of Victoria where Buruli ulcer is known to occur. Revisiting these locations at regular intervals will allow long-term monitoring of the progression of Buruli ulcer disease in possums and its impacts on animal welfare.
  • A field trial of a new mosquito trap that has direct and follow-on effects on mosquito populations is proposed for the Mornington Peninsula in early 2023, if permits can be secured for their use. Preliminary trials have shown these traps are effective at reducing populations of Aedes notoscriptus, the species of mosquito that transmits Buruli ulcer.
  • Data from these research activities, as well as human Buruli ulcer case data, are being used to predict locations and times of greatest Buruli ulcer transmission risk in Victoria, using a geospatial computer modelling program created by the project team. This will inform the design and delivery of targeted public health interventions to prevent human cases of Buruli ulcer in Victoria. 
A man and a woman wearing yellow high visibility jackets with the words

The ‘Beating Buruli in Victoria’ team would like to thank the community for the support received during our research and intervention activities to date. The team looks forward to continuing to work with local communities in areas affected by Buruli ulcer towards stopping the spread in Victoria.

If you have any questions about this research, please email the project team at beating-buruli@unimelb.edu.au.

Completed studies under the ‘Beating Buruli in Victoria’ project (2018–2022)

Mosquito surveillance and control studies

Aedes notoscriptus - mosquito species
Fig. 1: Aedes notoscriptus, the mosquito species believed to be responsible for spreading Buruli ulcer in coastal Victoria. © lrogan. Source:inaturalist.org website

Mosquito surveillance conducted on the Mornington Peninsula captured over 60,000 mosquitoes during a four-month period (November 2019 – March 2020). This showed that there are three dominant species of mosquito in the region that accounted for 86% of all mosquitoes: Culex molestus (42%), Aedes (Ae.) notoscriptus (37%), and Culex australicus (7%). 

Research has shown:

  • Only Ae. notoscriptus has consistently tested positive in the laboratory for M. ulcerans, indicating that mosquito control activities need to focus on this species (see Figure 1). 
  • The Ae. notoscriptus species fly much greater distances than was previously thought, which has implications for mosquito control activities. These findings are also available as a pre-print

Given these results, the project team have undertaken a series of mosquito control studies, using the hypothesis that reducing mosquito numbers will result in fewer Buruli ulcer cases in the study areas. The mosquito control studies are summarised as follows

Summary of mosquito control activities performed as part of the ‘Beating Buruli in Victoria’ project, 2019-2022.

  • Study period Size Methods used and results Comments
    March 2019 3 residential streets Methods used: Residual spraying of pyrethroid insecticides

    Results: Reduced mosquito numbers

    Local government and some residents objected to insecticide spraying, leading the project team to abandon this approach
    February – April 2021 Approximately 700 properties, grouped into 10 zones (five intervention and five control zones) Methods used: Combination of mosquito trapping, mosquito breeding source reduction and community education

    Results: Did not reduce mosquito numbers

    Intermittently occupied holiday houses in study areas contributed to low intervention uptake and acted as ‘hotspots’ for mosquito breeding
    February – April 2022 Approximately 25 individual properties Methods used: Combination of mosquito trapping and mosquito breeding source reduction

    Results:  Did not reduce mosquito numbers

    Recent research findings showed that Ae. notoscriptus fly much greater distances than previously thought, which would have affected the success of this trial

     

  • Study period Size Methods used and results Comments
    Early 2022 Approximately
    5 hectares
    Methods used: New ‘In2Care’ traps that have direct and follow-on effects on mosquito populations

    Results: Reduced mosquito numbers

    Given the success of this trial, a larger study is planned in 2023 (subject to permit approval)

Possum excreta surveys, 2018–2022

While the transmission cycle of Buruli ulcer in Victoria is not yet fully understood, there is increasing evidence that mosquitoes and possums play a role in disease transmission. Native possums are known to shed large numbers of M. ulcerans in their faeces. 

Graphical illustration of how mosquito and possum transmit disease to a human

Possum excreta surveys, in which project field staff collect possum faecal pellets from predetermined sampling locations at 200 metre intervals, have been conducted in Victoria since November 2018. Survey locations have included the Mornington Peninsula, Melbourne and Bayside suburbs, Greater Geelong and the Bellarine Peninsula.

The possum faecal pellets are then tested for M. ulcerans using a laboratory test that detects DNA, as only a small amount of DNA is required to perform the test. This cost effective and relatively easy testing method allows us to identify areas where possums are excreting the M. ulcerans bacteria into the environment, enabling the application of targeted mosquito control activities that might be most beneficial to protect people from Buruli ulcer. The findings of this research are available as a pre-print

Case-control and environmental field survey study, 2018-2020

Barwon Health and the CSIRO led this research, with support from the Department of Health, Mornington Peninsula Shire Council, Deakin University, the Doherty Institute, and Agriculture Victoria.

In this study, 256 Victorians with Buruli ulcer (‘cases’) and 458 without ('controls') participated by completing a study questionnaire in 2018–2020. Field surveys were conducted at the properties of 230 study participants, which involved the collection and testing of multiple environmental samples for the presence of M. ulcerans

The case control and environmental field survey study results identified several factors associated with an increased risk of a person getting Buruli ulcer (i.e. risk factors), and factors associated with a reduced risk of getting the disease (i.e. protective factors):

  • Factors that reduce risk of getting Buruli ulcer include: using insect repellent, wearing long sleeves when outdoors, and immediately tending to wounds. 
  • Factors that can increase the risk for Buruli ulcer include: a property with possums, ponds and certain types of native plants; having an outdoor job (especially one with regular soil contact); and using bore water for bathing or gardening.
     

See detailed results of the environmental field survey.

Reviewed 24 January 2023

Health.vic

Contact details

Project contact University of Melbourne | Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity

Contact details

Do not email patient notifications.

Communicable Disease Section Department of Health GPO Box 4057, Melbourne, VIC 3000

Was this page helpful?