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Townsville recognised for melioidosis expertise

Published:  01 November 2019

Townsville Hospital’s pathology laboratory has been formally recognised as the state-wide centre of excellence in the diagnoses of exotic tropical disease melioidosis.

The title of State Reference Laboratory for melioidosis was bestowed on Townsville’s pathology laboratory by Health Support Queensland – who manage 35 public pathology laboratories across Queensland.

Melioidosis is a disease caused by bacteria contained in the soil in North Queensland, with the bacterium usually entering the body via inhalation or cuts and sores in the skin. It has a mortality rate of about 20 per cent.

A State Reference Laboratory means Townsville is recognised as a centre of excellence for diagnosing melioidosis and is actively promoted as a source of expertise on melioidosis for pathologists across Queensland.

Director of Microbiology and Pathology at Townsville’s pathology laboratory Dr Robert Norton said other pathology laboratories across Australia will now have a single source of expertise for any advice or testing related to melioidosis.

Dr Norton said Townsville was the first laboratory in Australia to identify the soil-borne organism in Australia and had significant expertise in diagnosing and researching the pathogen.

“Melioidosis can be difficult to diagnose through serology and even cultures and can look very similar to a more common disease called pseudomonas,” Dr Norton said.

“Pseudomonas is treated very differently to melioidosis which is why it is so important that a correct diagnosis is made so the correct treatment can be administered.

“Townsville has been at the forefront of research and diagnostics of melioidosis for a very long time, so it is nice to receive this recognition of our expertise.”

Dr Norton said Townsville pathology staff had collectively published 40 peer reviewed journal articles and contributed to the development to an international guideline for diagnosing the condition as part of the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Melioidosis is caused by an environmental pathogen Burkholderia pseudomallei which is present in the soil across North Queensland.

Dr Norton said occasionally travellers to the region will pick up the pathogen and return home where they become unwell.

“The real benefit of being acknowledged as a State Reference Laboratory will be to assist our fellow laboratories across Australia in correctly diagnosing melioidosis,” he said.

“For laboratories in Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne this will be a bacterium they have never seen but should they suspect melioidosis they just need to pick up the phone and we will assist with either advice or testing.”

PQ General Manager Brett Bricknell said: “We are extremely proud of work and expertise of the staff at our Townsville laboratory and believe they are extremely worthy of this recognition”.

“Being a state reference laboratory tells the community and the health care system that Pathology Queensland in Townsville are the leaders in melioidosis.”

There have been 22 confirmed cases of melioidosis across the Townsville Hospital and Health Service catchment in 2019 and sadly there have been four deaths.

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