Australia has been hit with a spike of what the New York Times calls a "fearsome intruder," though it's not a new one. Stretching back as far as the 1940s, cases of Buruli ulcer—an infectious disease caused by the flesh-devouring Mycobacterium ulcerans bacterium, typically found in aquatic environments—have been recorded Down Under, but a recent surge has scientists concerned. The Mornington Peninsula, a well-off community in the state of Victoria, is right now the hardest-hit seaside community, with more than 180 annual cases documented since 2016; in 2018, that number reached 340. Earlier this year, the disease also started popping up in Melbourne's suburbs. The Times documents the story of octogenarian Rob Courtney, who contracted the disease and ended up with a gangrenous foot and a drug regimen that left him sick, tired, and with orange sweat and tears during his 50-day hospital stay.
The disease has been recorded in dozens of other countries, especially those in Africa, where patients receiving subpar health care can end up disfigured or disabled. The spike in Australia—along with a renewed interest in infectious diseases, for obvious reasons—has researchers hoping they'll finally be able to get to the bottom of the malady, including how it spreads. The CDC believes that water-dwelling insects may pass it to humans. Regarding the cases in Victoria, the working theory is that mosquitoes are picking up the bacteria from possum feces—the BBC reports their droppings contains "high quantities" of it—then passing it to humans. Meanwhile, as researchers try to figure out what's going on, patients like Courtney, who still has at least another six months of treatment to go, are enduring the repercussions. "When you're 80 years old and you lose a year, you get really savage about it," he laments. (Read more on his ordeal here.)