One of the least reassuring sentences you'll read this week: A flesh-eating bacterial infection that leads to "gaping, palm-sized ulcers" is on the rise, and experts have no idea how it's being spread. One of the more reassuring: It's happening in Victoria, Australia, so if you don't live there, you can read on with slightly less horror. Ars Technica reports that health authorities do know the bacterium at play—Mycobacterium ulcerans—and have recorded its rise from 47 infections in Victoria state in 2014 to 159 so far this year, reports Australia's ABC News. The infections do occur elsewhere in the world—generally in developing nations like Uganda, Nigeria, and Liberia—but a microbiologist terms the situation in Victoria an "epidemic."
The organism comes from the same family of bacteria as leprosy and tuberculosis, and the Age reports that some scientists think possums and mosquitoes may be vectors. But that's just a theory at this point, and no prevention strategies have been developed. Antibiotics can typically successfully treat the infection, which most commonly occurs on the arms or legs, but it's a gruesome-looking, gangrene-like experience (see photos here if you can stomach them). 9News shares the case of 13-year-old Ella Crofts, who developed the infection in one of her knees in April. At first it just felt sore; ultimately, much of the kneecap had turned into an open sore. She had to undergo three surgeries to excise dead skin, and she's still walking with a limp. "We call it the zombie leg," her mother says. (This hiker barely survived an infection from a flesh-eating bacteria.)