Melioidosis fatalities in captive slender-tailed meerkats (Suricata suricatta): Combining epidemiology, pathology and whole-genome sequencing supports variable mechanisms of transmission with one health implications

Audrey Rachlin, Cathy Shilton, Jessica R. Webb, Mark Mayo, Mirjam Kaestli, Mariana Kleinecke, Vanessa Rigas, Suresh Benedict, Ian Gurry, Bart J. Currie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Background: Melioidosis is a tropical infectious disease which is being increasingly recognised throughout the globe. Infection occurs in humans and animals, typically through direct exposure to soil or water containing the environmental bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei. Case clusters of melioidosis have been described in humans following severe weather events and in exotic animals imported into melioidosis endemic zones. Direct transmission of B. pseudomallei between animals and/or humans has been documented but is considered extremely rare. Between March 2015 and October 2016 eight fatal cases of melioidosis were reported in slender-tailed meerkats (Suricata suricatta) on display at a Wildlife Park in Northern Australia. To further investigate the melioidosis case cluster we sampled the meerkat enclosure and adjacent park areas and performed whole-genome sequencing (WGS) on all culture-positive B. pseudomallei environmental and clinical isolates. 

Results: WGS confirmed that the fatalities were caused by two different B. pseudomallei sequence types (STs) but that seven of the meerkat isolates were highly similar on the whole-genome level. Used concurrently with detailed pathology data, our results demonstrate that the seven cases originated from a single original source, but routes of infection varied amongst meerkats belonging to the clonal outbreak cluster. Moreover, in some instances direct transmission may have transpired through wounds inflicted while fighting.

Conclusions: Collectively, this study supports the use of high-resolution WGS to enhance epidemiological investigations into transmission modalities and pathogenesis of melioidosis, especially in the instance of a possible clonal outbreak scenario in exotic zoological collections. Such findings from an animal outbreak have important One Health implications.
Original languageEnglish
Article number458
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalBMC Veterinary Research
Publication statusPublished - 19 Dec 2019


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