Once considered a Bellarine Peninsula headache, Victoria’s flesh-eating Buruli ulcer has jumped the heads to Mornington Peninsula and is making inroads into bayside Melbourne. And nobody knows why.
David McLachlan limps across the polished wood floor of his unit wearing a doleful expression and a pair of old Crocs. I can’t blame him. I would present the same listless visage if I’d suffered his 11-month ordeal of pain and confinement: scalpels, drugs and dressings. As for the infamously ugly footwear, well, the Crocs are excusable; they’re the only shoes he’s been able to slip on for the past year, since the emergence of a gaping, pustulous cavity on the outside of his swollen right ankle.
We sit down on the couch at his home in Eaglemont, a leafy northeastern suburb of Melbourne, so McLachlan, 70, can get off his feet and tell his story, which he does by opening an iPad to a photo folder named “Buruli bug”. Honestly, I wish he hadn’t.
The series of lower leg selfies are (in his own words) “disgusting, just disgusting”. It’s hard not to wince throughout the slideshow, but he swipes with merciful speed, narrating his ongoing encounter with a bitterly hostile infection called Mycobacterium ulcerans, a mysterious disease closely related to tuberculosis and leprosy, and mostly associated with tropical climes and sub-Saharan Africa, but which has, over more than two decades, spread throughout coastal Victoria, particularly around Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne, morphing lately into an unexplained and uncontrollable epidemic showing no sign of slowing.
The raw sore itself is known as the Buruli ulcer, named for a county in Uganda that suffered a prolonged outbreak half a century ago. But that’s faraway history. In the past few years this enigmatic bug has been on a local rampage. In 2015, there were 107 new cases in Victoria. In 2016, 182 more. In 2017, 277 fresh infections. By 2018, another 340. Cases usually begin appearing in winter, and experts fear what might happen this year…