MSU entomologist appointed to unravel mysterious tropical disease

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- A tropical skin disease nicknamed "the sore that heals in vain" wreaks both physical and social mayhem mostly on children yet its transmission is a mystery, one an MSU researcher and his recent research associate hope to solve.

Richard Merritt, chairperson of the Michigan State University Department of Entomology, and Eric Benbow, now at DePauw University in Indiana, are using a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation to investigate possible links between biting aquatic insects, water quality and Buruli ulcer transmission.

"It's called the 'mysterious disease' because nobody knows how it's transmitted," Merritt said. "So that's the real dilemma and we're just getting started trying to figure this disease out."

Scientists do know Buruli ulcer disease is cased by a bacterium, Mycobacterium ulcerans, found in tropical regions such as western Africa. They also know 70 percent of Buruli ulcer patients are children under 15 years old and for the last decade the number of infections is on the rise.

A Buruli ulcer infection begins with a painless raised nodule followed by a sore. Left untreated, the mycobacterium produces a toxin that destroys surrounding tissue, muscle and in some cases bone, leaving open wounds, or ulcers, and disfigured limbs, Merritt said. In many cases, amputation is the only option.

Antibiotics have shown some success in treating Buruli ulcer if caught in its early stages, but by the time patients normally seek medical attention it is too late.

"I was in an orphanage in Ghana where 60 percent to 70 percent of the kids had Buruli ulcer disease," Merritt said. "Some of these little kids' arms or legs are covered with ulcers and doctors can't do a skin graph because there isn't enough skin there to take. I was really touched by these kids."

Merritt, who is a specialist in aquatic and medical entomology, will investig

Contact: Richard Merritt
Michigan State University

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