The spread of scrub typhus mite by native animals has left most Australians concerned. The bug is known for transmitting deadly infection, and those who regularly come in contact with native animals are worried. According to experts, this insect is not harmful, but it’s the bacterial infection that it transmits that makes it dangerous.
According to Darryl Gracie, he was pig-hunting in Litchfield Park when a mite bit him. To him, this was nothing out of the ordinary in the wild, but two weeks later he was diagnosed with scrub typhus. He was on the brink of organ failure. “First I thought I had the flu, feeling bad or just a headache,” he said. “But the symptoms got worse and worse, and that’s when I took myself up to the Royal Darwin Hospital in a terrible shape,” he added.
According to Mr Gracie, the medical experts could not figure out what the problem was. He was going downhill extremely fast, and they were worried they might lose him. Being a rare condition, it took some time before the doctors realised that he was suffering from scrub typhus. According to Professor Bart Currie, he identified that the scrub typhus mite had bitten Mr Gracie. “The infection had trashed his liver,” he said. Within two days, he had gone from being on death’s doorstep to a rapid recovery with the help of antibiotics.
According to Mr Gracie, this happened 12 years ago, and now he’s on a medical plan where his kidney and liver functionality is checked regularly. He is always on tablets to stabilise the condition. He explains that he will be on medication to balance the two for the rest of his life. That’s how severe this bacterial infection can be. But what is scrub typhus?
What is Scrub Typhus
This is a bacterial infection transmitted by mites that normally live on native animals. The bugs often crawl into warm parts of the body such as the groin or armpits. You can easily identify their bite since they leave a tell-tale black oval scab up to one centimetre long. According to Mr Gracie, it’s a small, slimy long bug, that bites you mainly around the crotch or armpit-type areas. “No matter how big and strong you may think you are, this is a bug that’s going to knock you down,” He said.
The bacterial infection causes a generalised illness in affected people up to two weeks after the bite. Although scrub typhus is easily treatable with antibiotics, victims can become seriously ill or even die. But the disease cannot be spread from one person to another. According to Professor Currie, the symptoms might start out as a mild non-specific illness where the patient might have a headache, sweat a lot, fever, and feel unwell. “Over a couple of days, the bacteria will have spread to other organs within the body and cause damage,” Professor Currie said.
”Because it is a non-specific type of illness initially, it’s difficult to diagnose unless you are asked questions about travel and where you’ve been, so medical staff need to know about these details so that they can do appropriate tests,” Professor Currie said. But he mentioned that it’s possible to protect yourself from these mites by wearing long pants in the bush. Use insect repellent, and don’t sit on the dirt or scrub. To illustrate the infection severity, Professor Currie says that scrub typhus actually causes mores deaths in Australian soldiers than malaria did in Papua New Guinea, during the Second World War.
Which Parts of Litchfield Is Considered ‘Sickness Country’
According to Professor Currie, not everywhere in Litchfield Park is infested with scrub typhus mites. He notes that local Aboriginal people had reported that there were relic rainforest parts of the park considered to be “sickness country”. The translation of the local name would simply mean ‘mite dreaming’ which means that the mites have been a historical part of these peoples lives. “It’s an incredible story about the peoples knowledge of these bugs. There are parts of the Litchfield region that are basically no-go areas for aboriginals,” he said. “So potentially, traditional healers recognised this scrub typhus story, and we only figured it out in 1990.” He added.
However, since the 1990s when one man was reported dead in the NT, the number of diagnoses from the park has dropped off significantly. Professor Currie attributes this drop to the keeping of tracks and pathways clear. “Rangers have cleared pathways making people going into the park less exposed to the grassy areas where the rodents and mites hide,” he said.
Why Travellers to NT and Those Returning From Asia Should Be Alert
Professor Currie says that scrub typhus is just one of many tropical diseases in the NT that may not be well known down south. In fact, Melioidosis was of far greater concern compared to Scrub typhus. There has been only one known scrub typhus death in the NT, but there have been close to 120 deaths caused by melioidosis. He also mentions that there have been 17 known cases of scrub typhus since 1990 whereas there have been 1,000 cases of melioidosis. That’s the reason why little attention has been given to this disease.
Although a small number of scrub typhus mite’s victims have been reported so far, it’s important to put the information out there for people visiting to know that there are things here which are not found in the southern Australia. Professor Currie also mentioned the need to have new people; particularly doctors who may not have heard of these illnesses, to be informed adequately. He also mentioned that it is tricky because the symptoms take two weeks to appear. ”For those who may contract the disease and go back to their homes before the symptoms appear, they may be misdiagnosed for other conditions,” he said. That’s why it’s important to let people know about the infection and the bug to keep safe.