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Several terms—nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM), atypical mycobacteria, mycobacteria other than tuberculosis, and environmental mycobacteria—all refer to mycobacteria other than Mycobacterium tuberculosis, its close relatives (M. bovis, M. caprae, M. africanum, M. pinnipedii, M. canetti), and M. leprae. The number of identified species of NTM is growing and will continue to do so because of the use of DNA sequence typing for speciation. The number of known species currently exceeds 150. NTM are highly adaptable and can inhabit hostile environments, including industrial solvents.




NTM are ubiquitous in soil and water. Specific organisms have recurring niches, such as M. simiae in certain aquifers, M. fortuitum in pedicure baths, and M. immunogenum in metalworking fluids. Most NTM cause disease in humans only rarely unless some aspect of host defense is impaired, as in bronchiectasis, or breached, as by inoculation (e.g., liposuction, trauma). There are no known instances of human-to-human transmission of NTM. Because infections due to NTM are rarely reported to health agencies and because their identification is sometimes problematic, reliable data on incidence and prevalence are lacking. Disseminated disease denotes significant immune dysfunction (e.g., advanced HIV infection), whereas pulmonary disease, which is much more common, is highly associated with pulmonary epithelial defects but not with systemic immunodeficiency.


In the United States, the incidence and prevalence of pulmonary infection with NTM, mostly in association with bronchiectasis (Chap. 258), have for many years been several-fold higher than the corresponding figures for tuberculosis, and rates of the former are increasing among the elderly. Among patients with cystic fibrosis, who often have bronchiectasis, rates of clinical infection with NTM range from 3% to 15%, with even higher rates among older patients. Although NTM may be recovered from the sputa of many individuals, it is critical to differentiate active disease from commensal harboring of the organisms. A scheme to help with the proper diagnosis of pulmonary infection caused by NTM has been developed by the American Thoracic Society and is widely used. The bulk of nontuberculous mycobacterial disease in North America is due to M. kansasii, organisms of the M. avium complex (MAC), and M. abscessus.


In Europe, Asia, and Australia, the distribution of NTM in clinical specimens is roughly similar to that in North America, with MAC species and rapidly growing organisms such as M. abscessus encountered frequently. M. xenopi and M. malmoense are especially prominent in northern Europe. M. ulcerans causes the distinct clinical entity Buruli ulcer, which occurs throughout tropical zones, especially in western Africa. M. marinum is a common cause of cutaneous and tendon infections in coastal regions and among individuals exposed to fish tanks or swimming pools.


The true international epidemiology of infections due to NTM is hard to determine since the isolation of these organisms often is not reported and speciation often is not performed. The increasing ease of identification and speciation of these ...

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