Difference Between Burkholderia Mallei And Pseudomallei

Burkholderia mallei and Burkholderia pseudomallei are two closely related bacterial species, both notorious for causing serious infectious diseases in animals and humans. Despite their similarities, the bacteria differ significantly in their epidemiology, pathogenicity, and clinical manifestations. Distinguishing between these two can be critical for effective treatment and control measures.

Burkholderia mallei primarily causes glanders, a disease that largely affects equines and occasionally humans, through direct contact with infected animals. On the other hand, Burkholderia pseudomallei is responsible for melioidosis, a disease that can be contracted by humans and a variety of animals through contact with contaminated soil and water. The bacteria’s distinct habitats contribute to their unique epidemiological patterns.

These pathogens pose significant health risks, particularly in endemic regions. Burkholderia mallei is generally confined to specific geographic areas where it infects domestic animals, while Burkholderia pseudomallei has a broader distribution and is often associated with environmental reservoirs in tropical climates. Understanding their differences is essential for diagnosing and managing the infections they cause.

Identifying Burkholderia Mallei

Origin and Habitat

Burkholderia mallei is a bacterium that primarily infects equines, such as horses, donkeys, and mules, and is not found freely in the environment. This pathogen has been largely eradicated from developed countries but remains a concern in parts of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and South America. Its confinement to a host animal for survival and proliferation highlights its unique ecological niche, differentiating it from other Burkholderia species that might inhabit soil or water.

Key Characteristics

Burkholderia mallei is non-motile and a facultative intracellular pathogen, which means it can survive both within and outside the cells of a host. It is gram-negative and has a capsule that contributes to its virulence by protecting it from the host’s immune responses. The bacterium is also characterized by its ability to form biofilms, which are protective structures that contribute to its persistence in the host and resistance to treatments.

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Common Diseases Caused

The primary disease caused by Burkholderia mallei is glanders, which primarily affects horses but can also infect other animals, including humans. Glanders is marked by:

  • Ulcerative lesions in the respiratory tract
  • Pulmonary infections
  • Nodules and abscesses in the lungs and liver

In humans, glanders can result in severe febrile infections that may progress to pneumonia, septicemia, and death if not treated promptly.

Identifying Burkholderia Pseudomallei

Origin and Habitat

Unlike Burkholderia mallei, Burkholderia pseudomallei is commonly found in soil and stagnant water, particularly in tropical and subtropical regions. This bacterium is endemic in Southeast Asia and Northern Australia and thrives in moist soil and water, making it a significant risk for agricultural workers and those with direct soil contact.

Distinctive Features

Burkholderia pseudomallei is motile and known for its inherent resistance to many antibiotics. This resistance complicates treatment strategies, emphasizing the need for precise identification and sensitivity testing. It is gram-negative like Burkholderia mallei, but unlike mallei, pseudomallei has a remarkable ability to survive under various environmental stresses.

Associated Health Risks

The primary disease associated with Burkholderia pseudomallei is melioidosis, which poses a significant health risk in endemic regions. Melioidosis can present in various forms:

  • Acute or chronic pneumonia
  • Skin infections
  • Abscesses in internal organs
  • Bloodstream infections

If left untreated, melioidosis has a high mortality rate, making early diagnosis and treatment essential.

Genetic Differences

Comparative Genomics

The genomes of Burkholderia mallei and Burkholderia pseudomallei show significant similarities but also critical differences that affect their pathogenic mechanisms and clinical management. Comparative genomics has revealed that while both bacteria share a common ancestor, specific gene deletions and acquisitions in Burkholderia mallei have tailored it more towards a specialized pathogen with a narrower host range compared to the more versatile Burkholderia pseudomallei.

Key Genetic Markers

Genetic markers that distinguish Burkholderia mallei from Burkholderia pseudomallei include genes related to motility, virulence factors, and antibiotic resistance profiles. These markers are crucial for developing diagnostic tools and understanding the bacteria’s epidemiology and pathogenicity.

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Epidemiology Comparison

Global Distribution

Burkholderia pseudomallei’s distribution is primarily in tropical regions, contrasting with the more restricted geographical presence of Burkholderia mallei due to its dependency on a host for survival. The global distribution of these pathogens affects local and global health policies, especially in regions prone to natural disasters that could disrupt soil and water, potentially increasing the risk of exposure.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for Burkholderia infections include direct contact with infected animals or soil, occupational exposure such as farming or veterinary work, and pre-existing health conditions like diabetes or chronic lung disease. Understanding these risk factors is critical for prevention and control measures in both human and animal populations.

Clinical Manifestations

Symptoms of Mallei Infection

Burkholderia mallei, the bacterium responsible for glanders, presents with specific symptoms in infected hosts. In equines, the signs may include:

  • Nasal discharge
  • Formation of nodular lesions in the nasal passages
  • Ulcers in the upper respiratory tract
  • Fever and weight loss
  • Swollen lymph nodes

In humans, the infection might manifest through:

  • Fever and chills
  • Muscle and chest pain
  • Muscle tightness
  • Headache
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Prompt recognition of these symptoms is crucial as glanders can be fatal if untreated.

Symptoms of Pseudomallei Infection

Burkholderia pseudomallei causes melioidosis, with symptoms ranging widely depending on the infection site:

  • Localized skin infections may result in pain, swelling, and ulceration.
  • Pulmonary infections can mimic tuberculosis or pneumonia with cough, chest pain, and high fever.
  • In septic cases, symptoms include high fever, joint pain, and headache.

The variability in symptoms makes melioidosis challenging to diagnose based solely on clinical presentation.

Diagnostic Approaches

Laboratory Tests for Mallei

Diagnosing Burkholderia mallei involves several laboratory techniques:

  • Culture: Growing the bacterium from samples like blood, sputum, or nasal secretions.
  • PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction): Detects bacterial DNA in clinical specimens, providing quick results.
  • Serology: Detects antibodies against Burkholderia mallei, although this method can cross-react with other Burkholderia species.

Laboratory Tests for Pseudomallei

For Burkholderia pseudomallei, the diagnostic approach includes:

  • Culture: Considered the gold standard, it involves culturing the bacterium from soil, water, or clinical samples.
  • PCR: Offers rapid detection and is essential for early diagnosis.
  • Antibody Detection: Useful in endemic areas to identify past exposure or chronic infection.
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Treatment Strategies

Antibiotics for Mallei

Effective treatment for Burkholderia mallei infection typically requires a combination of antibiotics:

  • Ceftazidime
  • Doxycycline
  • Amoxicillin/Clavulanic acid

These antibiotics are used in a two-phase approach: acute phase treatment to control the infection and eradication phase to eliminate any remaining bacteria.

Antibiotics for Pseudomallei

Treatment for Burkholderia pseudomallei includes:

  • Meropenem or Ceftazidime: For acute infection management.
  • Trimethoprim/Sulfamethoxazole: Used during the eradication phase to prevent recurrence.

Challenges in Treatment

The main challenges in treating Burkholderia infections include:

  • Antibiotic resistance: Both organisms exhibit intrinsic resistance to many common antibiotics.
  • Need for prolonged treatment: Extended antibiotic courses, sometimes lasting months, are required to ensure eradication.

Prevention and Control

Vaccination Updates

Currently, there are no approved vaccines for human use against either Burkholderia mallei or Burkholderia pseudomallei. Vaccine development is active, focusing on creating effective and safe options to prevent these serious diseases.

Public Health Strategies

Effective public health strategies to control Burkholderia infections include:

  • Education: Raising awareness about the risk factors and preventive measures in endemic regions.
  • Surveillance: Monitoring animal and human populations to detect and respond to outbreaks promptly.
  • Environmental Management: Reducing exposure to contaminated soil and water, especially after natural disasters in endemic areas.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Burkholderia mallei?

Burkholderia mallei is a bacterium primarily responsible for glanders, a disease affecting horses, donkeys, and mules. It can occasionally infect humans, usually those in close contact with infected animals.

How does Burkholderia pseudomallei spread?

Burkholderia pseudomallei spreads through contact with contaminated soil and water. It is the causative agent of melioidosis, which can affect both humans and animals in tropical and subtropical regions.

Can humans contract diseases from Burkholderia mallei and pseudomallei?

Yes, humans can contract diseases from both Burkholderia mallei and Burkholderia pseudomallei. However, the routes of transmission and the nature of the diseases vary between the two bacteria.

Are there vaccines available for Burkholderia infections?

Currently, there are no widely approved vaccines for Burkholderia infections in humans, though research is ongoing. Preventive measures focus on controlling exposure to the bacteria, especially in endemic areas.

How are Burkholderia infections treated?

Treatment of Burkholderia infections typically involves prolonged courses of antibiotics. The choice of antibiotics can differ based on the specific Burkholderia species involved and the severity of the infection.


Burkholderia mallei and Burkholderia pseudomallei represent a significant challenge to public health due to their pathogenicity and the severity of the diseases they cause. Accurate diagnosis, which hinges on understanding the distinct characteristics of each bacterium, is critical for effective treatment and prevention strategies.

The importance of ongoing research and development in the fields of diagnostics, treatments, and potential vaccines cannot be overstated. Improved understanding and awareness of these bacteria will enhance our ability to combat the infections they cause, ultimately reducing their impact on global health.

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