Rapid test found for potential bioagent

American and Australian scientists say they may have made a breakthrough after diagnosing a bacterial disease that has killed 10 people in the Northern Territories of Australia this rainy season.

Researchers say the bacteria - melioidosis - is an infection that can be contracted through contact with soil northern Australia and South-East Asia, Yahoo News reports. It was recently realized that the naturally occurring bacteria also has potential to be used as a biological weapon.

The U.S. National Institute of Health recently began funding research to develop a test that will enable doctors to diagnose patients more rapidly and begin melioidosis-specific treatment sooner. The current testing turnaround time is now around a week, if not longer.

Professor Bart Currie, who works in the infectious diseases department at Royal Darwin Hospital and is the Melioidosis project manager at Menzies, told Yahoo News that interest in the bacteria from countries outside the endemic areas has risen significantly in recent years.

Statistics so far show that 77 people contracted the bacterium this wet season. Since records began 20 years ago, about 600 people have contracted the disease, which causes chest infections, skin ulcers and prostate abscesses. So far, 85 people have died as a result of infections.

Mortality rates in melioidosis patients have dropped from 30 to 15 percent in recent years. Officials said they think a better diagnostic test will further reduce mortality rates, according to Yahoo News.