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Published: 15 July 2015

Breakthrough in fight against flesh-eating skin disease

Surrey scientists have made an important breakthrough in the fight against the flesh-eating tropical skin disease Buruli ulcer that could lead to quicker and better treatment and eventual cure.

Around 5,000 cases of Buruli ulcer are recorded each year, the majority in poor rural communities in West Africa, Australia and Southeast Asia where the infection is thought to occur when people bath in slow running water.

Researchers have discovered that the bacteria cause a blood clot in patients’ skin, similar to those that cause deep vein thrombosis (DVT). The new findings mean that, like DVT, the clots may respond to anticoagulant medicines, heal more quickly and with fewer side-effects than with antibiotics alone.

The team in the Department of Microbial and Cellular Sciences hopes this major discovery will accelerate the development of a cure for this chronic debilitating disease which can lead to permanent disfigurement and disability. The World Health Organization considers Buruli ulcer to be an emerging threat to public health.

Dr Rachel Simmonds said: “This is a huge breakthrough in our understanding of the disease. While antibiotics are currently used to treat Buruli ulcer, they take a long time to work and few people with the disease can afford to pay for extended stays in hospital.

“The ulcers are often painless, and as a result, early signs of infection are ignored, or thought to be a ‘curse’. Infected people, often children, are treated by traditional healers rather than modern medicine. We hope our research will now enable better treatment combinations that will reduce the lifetime deformity patients have to bear.”

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