Flesh Eating Bacteria Prevention, Treatment, and What is It Exactly? There is something about being “eaten alive” by bacteria, crawling unseen on your skin, that is so primitive and so sci-fi at the same time, it unleashes the primal fear in us. Maybe this is why, on the rare occasion that the gruesome flesh-eating bacterial infection strikes, it creates a storm in cyberspace.
Or why an email and text hoax warning consumers that they could contract a skin-eating disease from eating bananas terrified Southern Africans for weeks last December. Or why the American boy Jake Finkbonne’s stunning recovery from the infection in 2006 has been deemed a miracle by no less than the Vatican. [See Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, Jake Finkbonne, & Flesh-Eating Miracles]
Or why a recent Journal of Orthopedics report of a woman acquiring the flesh-eating disease from injecting the illicit drug bath salts seemed, to many, but a fitting morality tale about the dangers of doing drugs.
In Canada, the disease again grabbed attention recently, when Debbie Sebesta, a Mississauga, Ontario woman, died from it on Jan. 18.
But what exactly is the flesh-eating disease? Is it common? Am I at risk? Do I need to worry? Can I prevent it? Here’s information taken from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation (NFF):
Flesh-eating disease, or necrotizing fasciitis, is a rare but rapidly spreading, bacterial infection that attacks connective tissues, causing severe tissue death and damage by spreading rapidly through layers of skin and muscle. It can occur in almost any part of the body.
Usually caused by infection with group A streptococcus (GAS), health experts now agree that the infection is frequently polymicrobial—with many different bacterial genera and species working together to cause this disease. Occasionally, fungi can also cause necrotizing fasciitis.
Found on the skin, nose and throat of healthy people, GAS is the same bacteria that causes strep throat. But the majority of people who carry this bacteria do not get sick and very few people who come into contact with GAS will develop a serious disease. Why this is so—health experts are still puzzled over that.
The infection is rare. In the Unites States, 540 to 805 people get necrotizing fasciitis every year, and the disease will kill 11 percent of those who get it, according to the CDC.
Health Canada estimates that there are between 90 and 200 cases of flesh-eating disease per year in Canada, and about 20 to 30 percent of those who get it will die.
Recently, the disease has been reported more often in the news. But the actual number of people struck by the disease has not increased over the last several years.
The CDC warns that those with the higher risk factors for contracting flesh-eating disease include people with:
• Intravenous drug use
• Chronic illnesses like cancer, diabetes, and kidney diseases requiring dialysis
• A weakened immune system due to diseases such as HIV, diabetes, alcoholism or medications that affect immune function such as those used for inflammatory conditions or cancer.
• Being on medications such as steroids
• Recent close contact with someone with flesh-eating disease
• Skin wounds from burns, surgery, and trauma and in extremely rare cases, chicken pox lesions.
Doctors who have treated patients with necrotizing fasciitis say it is particularly lethal for four reasons:
One, because the majority of the damage happens below the surface of the skin, it often goes undetected and is hard to diagnose.
Two, because the deadly necrotizing fasciitis—or flesh-eating bacterial infection—is hard to diagnose, people who get it are bound to lose limbs or even die, the doctors warn.
Three, the causes and vectors continue to change. And four, the bacteria attacks suddenly and destroys tissue very rapidly so doctors trying to cure it are literally working against the clock.
The infection can spread through human tissue at a rate of three cm per hour. Twenty-five percent of its victims die, and in severe cases, the patient is dead within 18 hours, health experts say.
Early recognition is key
It’s important to recognize flesh-eating disease as early as possible, since the infection can progress rapidly from a benign appearing wound to a more serious and potentially fatal infection. It can start from an infection in a cut or bruise but sometimes there can be no obvious injury or wound.
What to look out for:
According to both the CDC and the NFF, you can detect the flesh-eating disease by checking if a minor wound swells, is hot and rapidly turns red. This discoloration can darken to a reddish-purple color and can be accompanied by blisters and bullae (fluid-filled pockets). Other symptoms are:
• Severe pain that increases rapidly over time and seems out of proportion to what would be expected for the size or type of injury.
• Flu-like symptoms such as fever, weakness, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, rapid heart rate and a general feeling of malaise
• No improvement in condition
• Possible shock
Flesh Eating Bacteria Prevention
A common bacterium, 10 to 15 percent of schoolchildren carry GAS in their throats but don’t get sick. GAS is contagious and is spread by close personal contact, like kissing and sharing eating utensils or cigarettes, touching infected skin lesions or contact with nose or throat discharges from an infected person. While GAS is passed from person to person, necrotizing fasciitis itself is not.
The CDC recommends the following preventive measures:
• Good hand washing can prevent the spread of GAS infection, especially after coughing, sneezing and before preparing food or eating.
• Patients with sore throats should be seen by a doctor.
• Patients with strep throat should stay home until 24 hours after their last antiobiotic dose.
• Wounds should be cleaned and monitored for signs of infection (redness, swelling, drainage, pain).
• Keeping the skin intact is an important factor in preventing NF.
• Patients with an infected wound and fever should seek medical care.
To survive necrotizing fasciitis, early diagnosis and early treatment are the keys. Blood or pus cultures are used to diagnose the flesh-eating infection, and treatment includes intravenous antibiotics and aggressive surgical debridement or removal of infected tissue.
Right now, there is no vaccine that can prevent GAS infections. Since 80 types of GAS exist, one of the challenges facing scientists is the development of one vaccine to combat all the different types.
Scientists, though, have identified the genetic sequence for more than 95 percent of the GAS bacteria in hope of identifying the proteins causing virulence—and developing a drug and vaccine to combat the gruesome and deadly disease.
Flesh Eating Bacteria Prevention, Treatment, and What is It Exactly? Posted 29 September 2015. Last updated on 29 April 2017.