Necrotizing fasciitis, commonly known as flesh-eating disease or flesh-eating bacteria, is a serious bacterial infection that spreads rapidly and destroys the body’s soft tissue. It is a very rare disease, which 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.
Usually, infections from group A strep bacteria are generally mild or moderate and are easily treated. But sometimes toxins made by these bacteria destroy the tissue they infect, causing it to die. (“Necrotizing” means “causing the death of tissues.”) Accurate diagnosis and prompt treatment with antibiotics through a vein and surgery are important. This year the bacteria has claimed a number of lives and has maimed many others. This report will look at some of the causes, treatments and victims of this menacing disease.
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. Some of these conditions include diabetes, kidney disease, cancer, or other chronic health conditions that weaken the body’s immune system.
If you’re healthy, have a strong immune system, and practice good hygiene and proper wound care, your chances of getting necrotizing fasciitis are extremely low.
In cases of necrotizing fasciitis, bacteria spread rapidly once they enter the body. They infect flat layers of a membrane known as the fascia, connective bands of tissue that surround muscles, nerves, fat, and blood vessels. The infection also damages the tissues next to the fascia.
The symptoms often start within hours after an injury and may seem like another illness or injury. Some people infected with necrotizing fasciitis may complain of pain or soreness, similar to that of a “pulled muscle.” The skin may be warm with red or purplish areas of swelling that spread rapidly. There may be ulcers, blisters or black spots on the skin. Patients often describe their pain as severe and way out of proportion to how the painful area looks when examined by a doctor. Fever, chills, fatigue (tiredness) or vomiting may follow the initial wound or soreness. These confusing symptoms may delay a person from seeking medical attention quickly.
The first line of defense against this disease is strong antibiotics given through a needle into a vein. But because the bacterial toxins can destroy soft tissue and reduce blood flow, antibiotics may not reach all of the infected and decaying areas. This is why the rapid surgical removal of dead tissue – in addition to antibiotics – may be critical to stopping the infection.
CDC tracks specific infections in the US, including necrotizing fasciitis caused by group A strep, with a special system called Active Bacterial Core surveillance (ABCs).
ABCs is an important part of CDC’s Emerging Infections Programs network (EIP), collaboration among CDC, state health departments, and universities. By sharing this kind of information in a timely way, public health professionals can stay connected and look for trends in rising cases. Each year in the US, there are about 650-800 cases of necrotizing fasciitis caused by group A strep; this is likely an underestimation as some cases are probably not reported. According to ABCs data, the number of annual infections does not appear to be rising.
In South Carolina, a Robeson County man died from a flesh-eating bacteria Tuesday.
Officials say Charles Hardin, 56, passed away at the Southeastern Regional Medical Center in Lumberton.
Hardin was fishing when the bacteria entered his body through an open wound on his leg. When he got to the hospital, officials say, Hardin was very sick with low blood pressure and his kidneys were shutting down.
A spokesperson for the hospital says this is the third case they’ve seen since 2010. In two of the cases, the patient died.
Christine Roberts, who writes for the New York Daily News reported on Monday, July 30, 2012 “a 33-year-old Michigan woman died… after a month-long battle with rare, flesh-eating bacteria.
The victim was Crystal Spencer, who, according to Roberts, was admitted into the hospital with necrotizing fasciitis. The bacteria, which entered through an open wound, quickly-spead, destroying Spencer’s body tissues.
Roberts wrote that, “Doctors believe Spencer may have lost her life due to a blood clot that traveled to her heart.”
Most recently, a Texas man reportedly has lost his leg as he battles the flesh-bacterial infection.
These are three of a number of mounting cases seen throughout the U.S. this year.
Contributor: D. Chandler