Flesh-Eating Bacteria Cases on the Rise in the U.S.

Georgia college student, Aimee Copeland, lost a leg due to a rare flesh-eating bacterial infection and is now expected to lose her fingers, as well.  This unfortunate series of events began when Aimee was kayaking and zip-lining on the Little Tallapoosa River, near Carrollton, Georgia.  At some point in time, the line reportedly broke and she sustained a cut to her calf.  Copeland’s wound was treated with 22 staples, after which she was released from the ER.

However, some time later, her condition took a turn for the worse and she was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis, which is a rare flesh-eating bacterial infection.  Her leg was amputated at the hip and as of last Sunday, she is still listed in critical condition.

According to Dr. William Schaffner, of the Vanderbilt University Medical School, this flesh-eating bacteria is often initially overlooked by physicians due to the fact that it assails tissue located deep inside the wound, while the outer skin appears to be healing well.  “This often is a very subtle infection initially,” Schaffner explained. “These bacteria lodge in the deeper layers of the wound. The organism is deep in the tissues and that’s where it’s causing its mischief.”

In another flesh-eating bacteria case, a 5-year old boy, after having fallen off his bike, skinned his chin and pierced his lip with his teeth, was three days later diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis.  It had spread into his cheek, close to the lip.  “We were having really, really difficult conversations with the family about what the outcome might be,” remarked Dr. Robert Chun, one of the 5-year old’s surgeons. Chun also said that the mortality rate of children with necrotizing fasciitis is approximately 25%.

Though necrotizing fasciitis is rare, the bacteria that causes it–Group A strep– is very common.  The infections appear to strike randomly, so it is of the utmost importance for doctors and parents to be cognizant of the signs of the flesh eating infection, Chun urges.

And, cases of the flesh-eating bacteria are on the rise.  According to Chun, “even with all the new antibiotics and treatments, this disease is still around.  This is still prevalent in our age of increasing technology and medicine.”

The rise has been tied to the overuse of over-the-counter antibiotic creams:

Most antibiotic-resistant bacteria arose in hospitals, in which the use of antibiotics is common, and then spread to the community. USA300 is different, in that its rise appears to have its origin in the community. This is why scientists are theorizing that the use of antibiotic agents such as creams, soaps and sanitizers contributed to the development of the pathogen. USA300 has taken the reverse route: it is now making its way into hospitals.

Dr. Henry Blumberg,  who is a professor of infectious disease at Emory University,  is a bit skeptical that these creams are responsible for the spread of flesh-eating bacteria. “They have a theory that use of topical, over-the-counter creams and antibiotics select this USA300 clone and that’s why it’s emerged,” Blumberg said. “They haven’t proved it.”  Blumberg  is hesitant to embrace the theory because “from my experience, most of the patients we see haven’t used topical antibiotics.” But, Blumber added, “I think it’s an interesting theory. It would be interesting to see if this was widespread in a bigger collection of USA300 isolates.”

What parents should know

“We’re at the point where we’re starting to see organisms that are resistant to every antibiotic we have, and we’re not going to get a lot of new ammunition.  I don’t think the public and policy makers are really aware — I don’t think people are aware of how bad the situations is with multi-drug resistant organisms. We can’t treat people because the organisms have become resistant to everything.” – Dr. Henry Blumberg

 -Candice Lanier