In rare tragedy, two Hanoi brothers die of Whitmore’s disease

By Le Nga   November 18, 2019 | 10:00 pm PT
In rare tragedy, two Hanoi brothers die of Whitmore’s disease
A blood sample tests positive with melioidosis, or Whitmore's disease. Photo by Shutterstock/Jarun Ontakrai.
Two brothers in Hanoi's Soc Son District died of melioidosis, or Whitmore's disease, two weeks apart.

On October 28, Viet, a five-year-old boy, was admitted to the National Children’s Hospital in the capital city with high fever and stomachache. Three days later, Viet died of septic shock from a bloodstream infection.

Doctors found out later that his death was caused by melioidosis, an infectious disease spread to humans through direct contact with contaminated water or oil. Its symptoms include fever, pneumonia, abscesses and inflammation of the brain and joints. The disease is frequently misdiagnosed as tuberculosis.

Half a month later, on November 10, Viet's little brother, Hai, was brought to the hospital with similar symptoms when he was just 19 months old.

Hai was conscious when he was admitted. He was treated with antibiotics which slightly improved his condition. However, after four days, he also experienced a septic shock and died on November 16. Doctors found that Hai’s death was caused by melioidosis, too.

"All the results of medical examination of Hai’s immune system and white blood cell functions showed no pathological abnormality", said Associate Professor Tran Minh Dien, deputy director of the hospital. "We will need to do a genetic analysis for both Hai and Viet for a deeper diagnosis."

"In 30 years that I have been practicing, it is the first time I have seen two consecutive cases of melioidosis in the same family", said doctor Ta Anh Tuan, head of the hospital's Intensive Care Unit.

Previously, in April, the family's eldest child, Trang, 7, was the first to die at the Saint Paul Hospital in the capital city, diagnosed with intestinal necrosis caused by bloodstream infection. Since she was not tested for melioidosis, it cannot be definitively stated that the diseased caused her death as well.

Whitmore's disease is known to cause various types of infection, including pulmonary, localised, bloodstream and disseminated infections, all of which are fatal to patients. The disease’s mortality rate is 40 percent.

"For this disease, treatments include up to six months of taking multiple antibiotics. There is currently no vaccine for it," said Trinh Thanh Trung, head of the Science and Technology Department of the Institute of Microbiology and Biotechnology with the Vietnam National University-Hanoi. "It peaks during the rainy season, from July to November."

Every year, Vietnam diagnoses about 10,000 cases of melioidosis, around half of which prove fatal. Recently, many cases have been recorded in the provinces of Nghe An, Yen Bai, Thai Nguyen, and Ha Tinh.

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