Experts hope to ease concern over flesh-eating bacteria
by Matt Shinall
Jun 19, 2012 | 2063 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Due to recent media attention and heightened public awareness, necrotizing fasciitis, also known as flesh-eating bacteria, has experts advising that serious infections are rare and no cause for general alarm.

With the case of Georgia resident Aimee Copeland grabbing headlines across the country, similar cases have spread concern for the bacteria causing this devastating infection. Despite public concern, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not recorded higher-than-normal occurrences in annual rates.

Cartersville too made the rounds in national news with the case of Robert Vaughn, a Bartow County resident who suffered from an aggressive infection similar to that of Copeland. Vaughn, in fact, was transferred to the same Augusta hospital where Copeland continues to receive treatment.

Aman Mongia, infectious disease physician at Cartersville Medical Center and 2012 CMC chairman of medicine, commented on the increased public concern surrounding flesh-eating bacteria.

"When people heard that news they kind of got a little worried that it might be a problem in Cartersville. But it was not really the same infection and it was not the same bacteria. So, it was not really the same thing although [Vaughn] went through a very similar case," Mongia said. "There's a lot of different bacteria that cause these types of infections and they're common bacteria, like streptococcus. So you don't need to be concerned about certain areas, whether it's Cartersville, whether it's the hospital or anywhere. It's not based on your environment because these bacteria are ubiquitous, they're everywhere in the environment in every country in the world. This is common stuff, it's not anything unique to Cartersville or Carrollton or anywhere else."

The CDC echoes Mongia's reassurance that necrotizing fasciitis is a rare occurrence, but is transmitted to humans through a number of very common bacteria.

"Necrotizing fasciitis is a serious bacterial infection that spreads rapidly and destroys the body's soft tissue. Commonly called a 'flesh-eating infection' by the media, this very rare disease can be caused by more than one type of bacteria. These include group A Streptococcus (group A strep), Klebsiella, Clostridium, E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Aeromonas hydrophila, among others. Group A strep is considered the most common cause of necrotizing fasciitis," stated the CDC in a prepared statement. "Most cases occur randomly and are not linked to similar infections in others. The most common way of getting necrotizing fasciitis is when the bacteria enter the body through a break in the skin, like a cut, scrape, burn, insect bite, or puncture wound. Most people who get necrotizing fasciitis have other health problems that may lower their body's ability to fight infection."

For most, contracting a flesh-eating bacteria is highly unlikely and typically requires the presence of risk factors leading to a weakened immune system. For Copeland, her risk factor was a cut to the leg suffered in a fall from a homemade zipline over the Little Tallapoosa River near Carrollton.

"[Infection] is a common problem with having traumatic wounds in fresh water. As physicians, we know that," Mongia said. "It's not anything unusual to Carrollton, it's not unusual to Georgia, it's not unusual to probably any fresh-water lake in the world.

"If you have an open cut or a pretty severe open wound, you obviously don't want to be in fresh water where it could get infected. It's just like if you had a bad cut, you would use antiseptic and you would clean it out and you'd be careful not to get it dirty. You wouldn't want to be playing in the dirt the same way you wouldn't want to go swimming with an open wound. You just want to keep it clean and protect it."

Necrotizing fasciitis has a number of varied symptoms, including rapid heart rate, fever, changing skin color, severe fatigue and joint pain. Anyone experiencing these symptoms is urged to consult a physician. For otherwise healthy individuals, Mongia ensures their risk of infection is very low, but other risk factors can weaken immune systems, including diabetes, obesity and chronic steroid therapy.

"There's about 3.5 cases of necrotizing fasciitis per 100,000 people," Mongia said. "It's extremely, extremely rare and of course these things can happen, but when you're talking about 3.5 people per 100,000, you're talking about less than half a percent. The possibility is so minuscule, it's not necessarily even something you should be worried about or concerned about."