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Mycobacterium Marinum Infections From Aquariums May Be Under-Diagnosed

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Certain bacteria in aquariums can cause skin infections, but these infections may go undiagnosed by doctors, according to a new study.

Researchers from the Henry Ford Hospital identified five patients who had skin infection by Mycobacterium marinum that occurred between January 2003 and March 2013 at Henry Ford Hospital. M. marinum infection can occur if you have an open wound and you come into contact with contaminated aquarium water. Researchers looked at the medical records of these patients to see how long it took before they finally received the right treatment.

On average, 161 days passed between the time the skin lesions first appeared and the time it took to have the lesions treated (with the shortest amount of time until proper treatment being 33 days, and the longest being 379 days). Researchers found that two of the patients first received antifungal medications before even getting the right antibiotics. Plus, they observed that the incubation time for the infection -- meaning the time between when skin lesions actually appeared, and the initial infection -- was long, ranging from 11 to 56 days.

Fortunately, M. marinum is not considered life-threatening. However, doctors should keep in mind that aquariums could be a potential source of infection if their patients present with skin lesions.

"To accelerate diagnosis and treatment, physicians are encouraged to ask detailed questions about the patient's history, especially questions about potential exposure to aquariums," study researcher George Alangaden, M.D., an infectious diseases doctor at Henry Ford, said in a statement.

The new study has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal; it was presented at the Infectious Diseases Society of America's annual meeting.

A fact sheet on the bacteria from Iowa State University explains how M. marinum infection usually manifests:

Signs of disease involve localized skin lesions, usually on the fingers or hands. They may be single nodule or ulcer or a series of multiple nodules. Skin lesions can heal on their own or persist for months. Less commonly the bacteria can spread in the body and cause joint and bone infections. Death is rare but occasionally occurs, most often in persons with weakened immune systems.

The same fact sheet notes that the best way to prevent infection by M. marinum is to avoid having contact with aquarium water or aquarium fish. If you must touch aquarium water, wear gloves when handling the water or the fish, and then wash your hands immediately afterward.

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