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What You Should Know About Flesh-Eating Bacteria
Posted 8/29/19 5:05:52 PM

As the school year starts up again and summer comes close to ending, what was one of your most memorable summer vacation trips? Chances are high that it probably involved taking a few days off from work, heading to the beach with your family and friends, and spending the weekend wading in the waves, building sandcastles along the beach, and enjoying the ocean breeze. However, this lovely, unforgettable weekend-long beach trip might have turned out rather bad for an unlucky few people.

One of the more severe, cringe-worthy moments that seemed to escalate this past summer were the multiple cases of flesh-eating bacteria found lingering in the warm waters around the United States. Although this flesh-eating bacterium, known as “Necrotizing Fasciitis”, has been circulating around for some time, this summer there were nine different states, Florida, Alabama, Texas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky, which experienced involvement in some way with this potentially deadly bacterium. 

Lucky for us, this particular strain of bacterium is very rare. With the millions of people that constantly swim in natural bodies of water, only about 600 to 700 cases are diagnosed each year. However, about 25% to 30% of those cases result in death. So, while it is a rare bacterium, it’s good to know about it and maybe even try to prevent it.

In this blog, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the bacteria. From the history and how it all got started, to what you can do to help prevent or protect against coming into contact with this deadly infection. However, before we dive deep into some unchartered waters, let’s talk about the cases that happened this past summer.

Where was Flesh-Eating Bacteria Spotted?

It should come as no surprise that the southern hemisphere of the United States typically sees more people reporting on this bacteria than anywhere else in the country. The potentially harmful bacteria thrive in water with temperatures that stay well above 55 degrees year-round. And each summer, as the country’s coastline heats up, more and more bacteria can be found lingering in the water.

This past summer, the bacteria went as far north as the Connecticut, when an elderly man developed the flesh-eating bacteria a few weeks ago, as he was swimming at Hammonasset Beach State Park on the Long Island Sound. After contracting necrotizing fasciitis, doctors eventually had to amputate the man’s right leg after multiple failed surgeries trying to save the limb.

 Other places people reported the deadly bacterium included: Delaware Bay, Baltimore, Ocean City in Maryland, Colonial Beach in Virginia, Ocean View Beach in Virginia, Green River in Kentucky, Waterloo in Alabama, San Diego, Magnolia Beach in Texas. In the state of Florida; Okaloosa County, Destin, Santa Rosa Beach, St. George Island, Ozona, Pinellas County, and anna Maria Island.

So, why were these specific places reported with the bacterium and why not others? There’s still a lot that’s unknown about where the bacterium lives and how to avoid these epidemics. However, researchers and scientists are digging into the bacterium’s past and finding out more about it to better understand it. 

History of the Deadly Bacterium

Interestingly enough, the flesh-eating bacteria that we know about today, derives from a bacteria that is known to cause only minor illnesses and what we know best today as strep throat. The bacteria called “Group A Streptococcus” underwent four major genetic changes as it transformed into the type that causes the life-threating disease called necrotizing fasciitis. 

Strep throat, the illness that infects more than 600 million people each year, is linked to the same bacterium as the flesh-eating bacteria. Although this infection reaches multitudes of people each year, a rare strain of it can develop deadly infections, causing serious health issues and possibly death.

After years of researching, scientists were able to discover four major steps in the microbe’s transition. They were also able to trace the first development of the bacterium, the deadly toxin that it contained, and were able to see what caused an epidemic of the deadly bacterium in the late 1980s to early 1990s.

By knowing this information, researchers can try to develop vaccines and treatments to help fight the epidemics we see during the summer time. And more importantly, they believe that having this knowledge will aid in identifying new, potentially deadly pathogens early on before they become wide-spread epidemics. 

Currently, when someone comes into contact with the rare, but deadly, flesh-eating bacterium, it can be treated and mostly killed off with medications such as penicillin or other antibiotics. However, what’s more common than not, is that people with the deadly infection don’t even realize they have it until it’s too late for treatment. So, what can be done to treat the infection or maybe even prevent it altogether? Let’s keep reading.

What can be done to prevent this deadly infection?

If the school year is already stressing you out and you’ve begun planning your next vacation to the beach, here’s a few basic things you might what to know before you go.

How it’s Contracted

The rare strain of bacterium, Necrotizing Fasciitis, cannot be contracted unless an infection has already started in your skin’s tissue. So, this means, if you have any current infections or wounds, treating them as soon as possible will help prevent contracting this particular bacterium. 

According to the CDC, any break in the skin, such as a cut or scrape, burns, insect bites, puncture wounds, or surgical wounds, can allow bacteria to enter into the body.

How to Diagnose/What to do If Contracted

If you’ve recently gone swimming and have started to notice an infected area on your body getting worse instead of healing properly, you should see your doctor or make a trip to the hospital immediately. It’s important to get an accurate diagnosis in order to start antibiotic treatment, and possibly even have surgery, to combat the infected area right away.

Basic Prevention

Basically, practicing good hygiene is a great way to avoid infections of any kind, including the flesh-eating bacterium. After swimming in the water, be sure to shower off and thoroughly wash with soap and water. If you injured yourself while swimming, be sure to wash the wound very well and then keep it covered with dry, clean bandages. 

Should you be worried?

Should you be fearful of visiting your favorite beach or river location? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that while anyone can contract the harmful bacterium, it’s very rare, especially if you’re healthy and have strong immune system.

However, people that have health problems, such as diabetes, kidney disease, liver scarring or cancer, could potentially be more at risk due to their body’s low ability to fight infections. In those cases, it’s always a good idea to keep a good hygiene to prevent any infections from happening. And if you do have an open wound or skin infection, you should avoid spending time in hot tubs, swimming pools, and natural bodies of water, such as oceans, rivers, and lakes, for your own safety.

While contracting necrotizing fasciitis is rare, it’s always good to take preventative measures with yourself and your loved ones while planning for your next vacation. If you don’t feel comfortable with a family member risking contracting the bacteria, maybe plan a camping trip in the mountains instead of a trip to the beach. A family vacation, after all, isn’t about the location of the trip, but the memories you make along the way.