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Woman, 24, battles flesh-eating bacteria: Are you at risk?

May 14, 2012|By Rene Lynch

Necrotizing fasciitis is a rare but potentially deadly disease that ravages the body's tissues and causes them to die off, earning it the fiendish nickname "flesh-eating bacteria."

A Georgia college student, Aimee Copeland, 24, is currently fighting the disease from her hospital bed near Atlanta. She contracted necrotizing fasciitis after falling from a homemade zip line ride during what was supposed to be a day of fun in the sun on May 1.

The fall left a gash in her left calf, believed to have been the entry point for the necrotizing fasciitis. Doctors have since had to amputate one of her legs, and may have to remove her fingers and remaining foot. Her father, Andy Copeland, has started a blog to keep people apprised of her progress, and says he uses the world "miracle" to describe her continued recovery. 

Necrotizing fasciitis is caused by Group A Streptococcus, also referred to in shorthand as GAS. "Most GAS infections are relatively mild illnesses," like strep throat, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website. 

But occasionally these strep infections can cause severe and even life-threatening diseases if they're introduced into a part of the body where bacteria are not usually found, "such as the blood, muscle, or the lungs."

With this inroad to the deepest recesses of the body, the CDC says, the "rapidly progressive disease... destroys muscles, fat, and skin tissue" as it ravages the body.

There is no known way to fully prevent the illness, but the National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation suggests these common sense tips: frequent hand-washing, immediate medical treatment for wounds (thorough cleansing of the area and application of an antibacterial ointment), limited contact with anyone with a strep infection, and teaching children the need for cleanliness.

"The single biggest preventative measure is keeping the skin intact," the foundation says.

That's important because necrotizing fasciitis can find a way to breach the body's natural barriers through a wound or sore -- even through a minor opening such as a paper cut or staple puncture, according to the CDC and the National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation. It can also enter through weakened skin, such as that found with a bruise or blister. Symptoms include severe pain, swelling, fever, redness at the wound site, flu-like symptoms and, on rare occasions, "a flat red rash over large areas of the body."

Treatment for necrotizing fasciitis includes high doses of the antibiotics penicillin and clindamycin; "early and aggressive surgery is often needed to remove damaged tissue and stop disease spread," according to the CDC.

The CDC notes that the people at the greatest risk for developing necrotizing fasciitis are people who already have chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, and heart or lung disease, or those who are on steroids.

People with lesions -- openings due to cuts, chicken pox, and even surgical wounds -- are especially susceptible, the CDC says. Elderly people and adults with a history of alcohol abuse or injection drug use also have a higher risk for disease, the CDC says.

The CDC stresses that the chance of contracting necrotizing fasciitis is rare: There are only about 11,500 cases of "invasive GAS disease" each year in the U.S., with between 1,000 and 1,800 of those cases ending in death, and not all of those cases rise to the level of being a flesh-eating bacteria diagnosis.

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