What you should know about flesh-eating bacteria

Kelei Parker (Photo provided by family)
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INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — With what may seem to be a pattern of people becoming seriously ill or dying from flesh-eating bacteria in recent weeks, it's important to set the record straight about the disease it causes.

First things first: There is not a single bacteria that can cause the life-threatening illness known as necrotizing fasciitis. Necrotizing fasciitis is a bacterial infection that can be caused by a number of bacteria, but according to the CDC, the most frequent cause is group A Streptococcus — the same bacteria that causes strep throat.

In addition to necrotizing fasciitis and strep throat, grade A strep is also responsible for scarlet fever, rheumatic fever.

The second thing to know is despite recent stories that have gained national popularity, necrotizing fasciitis caused by group A Strep is still rare. According to the CDC, there have been between 700 and 1,200 cases of the disease since 2010, and that rate does not appear to be increasing.

Another bacteria called Vibrio Vulnificus can also lead to necrotizing fasciitis. Vibrio Vulnificus is naturally found in warm, coastal waters, making Florida beaches a prime place for the bacteria to thrive.

How you get it

Necrotizing fasciitis occurs when bacteria enters the body, usually through cuts and scrapes, puncture wounds,burns, insect bites or surgical wounds.

For the majority of healthy people, the bacteria does not pose a very big risk. Most people who develop necrotizing fasciitis already have compromised immune systems due to issues including but not limited to:

  • Diabetes
  • Kidney disease
  • Cirrhosis
  • Cancer

These health complications decrease the body's ability to fight bacterial infections.

Necrotizing fasciitis is not generally contagious. "Catching" the disease from another person is very rare, and most cases occur randomly.

A 12-year-old Mooresville girl contracted the bacteria after dipping her cut toe into the ocean in Destin, Florida. After a terrifying journey of severe complications, the infection is under control and she has begun walking again.

Symptoms

Early symptoms of the infection include red or swollen skin that spreads quickly, severe body pain and fever. However, symptoms develop very quickly and can progress into ulcers, blisters or black spots on the skin, dizziness, fatigue, diarrhea or nausea, and pus oozing from infected areas.

Quick action is key when it comes to limited complications from the infection. Diagnosis can be difficult as necrotizing fasciitis can look like a lot of other, less serious infections in its early stages. It may take blood work, tissue samples or various scans to determine the true diagnosis.

This long process could potentially be deadly, as necrotizing fasciitis can lead to sepsis, shock and organ failure.

Even with treatment, the CDC says 1 in 3 people die from the infection.

How to prevent it

It's pretty simple: taker care of open wounds, and stay away from bodies of water if your immune system is compromised.

Clean and cover all cuts, scrapes, burns and other wounds to keep bacteria from entering the skin. Make sure your hands are clean.

Stay away from pools and hot tubs, pools, lakes, oceans and rivers.

There is no vaccine to prevent the infecetion, but taking these simple steps will greatly decrease your chance of illness.

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