Burkholderia cepacia is the name of a specific bacterium in the genus Burkholderia.  It is most common to refer to a group of related bacteria in this genus as Burkholderia complex instead of referring to individual species outside of diagnostic, research or infection control environments.  There are about 17 species that make up the complex but the most common are:    B. cenocepacia, B. dolosa, B. multivorans B. vietnamiensis, and of course, B. cepacia.  B. gladioli is another species of Burkholderia that you might hear about, and while it can be important, for technical reasons, it is not considered a member of the complex.

B cepacia

Burkholderia Basics

Burkholderia bacteria are relatively common and are found in aquatic environments and in the soil.  Interestingly, they are a common cause of root rot in vegetables such as onions and garlic.  In general, they are harmless, to humans, inhabitants of the natural world but in some relatively rare, but very important cases, these bacteria can be deadly.  Unfortunately, these bacteria can prove very difficult to treat effectively with current antibiotics as they often possess resistance characteristics, a problem that is spreading in today’s world because of the overuse and misuse of antibiotics.  Never take antibiotics not prescribed to you and encourage your doctor to be sparing in the use of these drugs in yourself and your children.

On the plus side, Burkholderia species can digest oil and other potentially toxic environmental contaminants in water and soil.  They can be used for the remediation of spills and other environmental disasters and since they are normal inhabitants of soil and water to begin with, nothing artificial or new is introduced.

Burkholderia and Cystic Fibrosis

The group of people most at risk for disease from the Burkholderia complex (B. complex) group of bacteria are those living with cystic fibrosis.  People with other conditions, including chronic granulomatous disease, which is another genetic disease like cystic fibrosis, however these diseases, while both genetic in origin, have very different symptoms, outcomes and treatments.

Cystic fibrosis affects the lungs of those who have it and infection with the B. complex bacteria can rapidly worsen symptoms.  Sadly, in some studies, the death rate among patients with cystic fibrosis who develop an infection with B. complex bacteria is up to 35%.  Therefore, it is very important to control this group of bacteria in environments where patients with cystic fibrosis are likely to congregate or live.

Others at Risk From Burkholderia

B. complex bacteria can also sicken people who are severely immunocompromised due to other illnesses or due the side effects of medications used to treat other conditions, or due to advanced age.  Microbiological analysis can easily identify the B. complex species capable of causing illness and your doctor will have laboratory tests performed as needed in your specific case.

The Spread of Burkholderia

It isn’t always possible to know how any one person became infected with a B. complex bacteria, but it has been known to be spread through direct person-to-person contact as well as through secondary contact with inanimate objects such as door knobs that have become contaminated with the respiratory secretions of an infected person.  People may also become infected from contact with these bacteria in the environment, such as through contact with infected water or soil.