Drugs for treating Buruli ulcer (Mycobacterium ulcerans disease)

What was the aim of this review?

The aim of this Cochrane Review was to summarize the evidence for drug treatments for Buruli ulcer.

Key messages

Antibiotics are an important component of treatment of Buruli ulcers, but there is no evidence to suggest that any particular drug is more effective than another.

What was studied in the review?

Buruli ulcer is a disease caused by mycobacterium (tuberculosis and leprosy are other types of diseases caused by mycobacterium), which results in lumps in the skin and deep ulcers, often on the arms or the face. When diagnosed late, those affected may be left with lifelong disfigurements and disabilities. The disease is most prevalent in West Africa, but it is also found in non-tropical areas including Australia and Japan. It is often treated with drugs and surgery. This review compared different drug treatments for Buruli ulcer.

What are the main results of the review?

We included 18 studies from eight countries in West Africa and Australia (1984 participants). Antibiotic combination treatments evaluated appear to be effective, but the evidence is insufficient to show that any particular drug is more effective than another.

Testing treatments in Buruli ulcer is challenging as different sizes, lesions, and stages of the disease contribute to healing rates. Surgery also plays an important role in treating Buruli ulcer, and consequently the independent effect of drugs is difficult to assess. Trials of new regimens that also address these factors will help to identify the best regimens.

How up-to-date is this review?

We searched for studies published up to 19 December 2017.

Authors' conclusions: 

While the antibiotic combination treatments evaluated appear to be effective, we found insufficient evidence showing that any particular drug is more effective than another. How different sizes, lesions, and stages of the disease may contribute to healing and which kind of lesions are in need of surgery are unclear based on the included studies. Guideline development needs to consider these factors in designing practical treatment regimens. Forthcoming trials using clarithromycin with rifampicin and other trials of new regimens that also address these factors will help to identify the best regimens.

Read the full abstract...

Buruli ulcer is a necrotizing cutaneous infection caused by infection with Mycobacterium ulcerans bacteria that occurs mainly in tropical and subtropical regions. The infection progresses from nodules under the skin to deep ulcers, often on the upper and lower limbs or on the face. If left undiagnosed and untreated, it can lead to lifelong disfigurement and disabilities. It is often treated with drugs and surgery.


To summarize the evidence of drug treatments for treating Buruli ulcer.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Infectious Diseases Group Specialized Register; the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), published in the Cochrane Library; MEDLINE (PubMed); Embase (Ovid); and LILACS (Latin American and Caribbean Health Sciences Literature; BIREME). We also searched the US National Institutes of Health Ongoing Trials Register (clinicaltrials.gov) and the World Health Organization (WHO) International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP) (www.who.int/ictrp/search/en/). All searches were run up to 19 December 2017. We also checked the reference lists of articles identified by the literature search, and contacted leading researchers in this topic area to identify any unpublished data.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that compared antibiotic therapy to placebo or alternative therapy such as surgery, or that compared different antibiotic regimens. We also included prospective observational studies that evaluated different antibiotic regimens with or without surgery.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently applied the inclusion criteria, extracted the data, and assessed methodological quality. We calculated the risk ratio (RR) for dichotomous data with 95% confidence intervals (CI). We assessed the certainty of the evidence using the GRADE approach.

Main results: 

We included a total of 18 studies: five RCTs involving a total of 319 participants, ranging from 12 participants to 151 participants, and 13 prospective observational studies, with 1665 participants. Studies evaluated various drugs usually in addition to surgery, and were carried out across eight countries in areas with high Buruli ulcer endemicity in West Africa and Australia. Only one RCT reported adequate methods to minimize bias. Regarding monotherapy, one RCT and one observational study evaluated clofazimine, and one RCT evaluated sulfamethoxazole/trimethoprim. All three studies had small sample sizes, and no treatment effect was demonstrated. The remaining studies examined combination therapy.

Rifampicin combined with streptomycin

We found one RCT and six observational studies which evaluated rifampicin combined with streptomycin for different lengths of treatment (2, 4, 8, or 12 weeks) (941 participants). The RCT did not demonstrate a difference between the drugs added to surgery compared with surgery alone for recurrence at 12 months, but was underpowered (RR 0.12, 95% CI 0.01 to 2.51; 21 participants; very low-certainty evidence).

An additional five single-arm observational studies with 828 participants using this regimen for eight weeks with surgery (given to either all participants or to a select group) reported healing rates ranging from 84.5% to 100%, assessed between six weeks and one year. Four observational studies reported healing rates for participants who received the regimen alone without surgery, reporting healing rates ranging from 48% to 95% assessed between eight weeks and one year.

Rifampicin combined with clarithromycin

Two observational studies administered combined rifampicin and clarithromycin. One study evaluated the regimen alone (no surgery) for eight weeks and reported a healing rate of 50% at 12 months (30 participants). Another study evaluated the regimen administered for various durations (as determined by the clinicians, durations unspecified) with surgery and reported a healing rate of 100% at 12 months (21 participants).

Rifampicin with streptomycin initially, changing to rifampicin with clarithromycin in consolidation phase

One RCT evaluated this regimen (four weeks in each phase) against continuing with rifampicin and streptomycin in the consolidation phase (total eight weeks). All included participants had small lesions, and healing rates were above 90% in both groups without surgery (healing rate at 12 months RR 0.94, 95% CI 0.87 to 1.03; 151 participants; low-certainty evidence). One single-arm observational study evaluating the substitution of streptomycin with clarithromycin in the consolidation phase (6 weeks, total 8 weeks) without surgery given to a select group showed a healing rate of 98% at 12 months (41 participants).

Novel combination therapy

Two large prospective studies in Australia evaluated some novel regimens. One study evaluating rifampicin combined with either ciprofloxacin, clarithromycin, or moxifloxacin without surgery reported a healing rate of 76.5% at 12 months (132 participants). Another study evaluating combinations of two to three drugs from rifampicin, ciprofloxacin, clarithromycin, ethambutol, moxifloxacin, or amikacin with surgery reported a healing rate of 100% (90 participants).

Adverse effects were reported in only three RCTs (158 participants) and eight prospective observational studies (878 participants), and were consistent with what is already known about the adverse effect profile of these drugs. Paradoxical reactions (clinical deterioration after treatment caused by enhanced immune response to M ulcerans) were evaluated in six prospective observational studies (822 participants), and the incidence of paradoxical reactions ranged from 1.9% to 26%.