Flesh-Eating Bacteria: Myths And Facts

From several cases of infection in Florida beaches to the case of a Georgia veteran, flesh-eating bacteria has been in the news a lot recently. While the name alone invokes images of horror, those horrible images are usually all anyone knows. Here’s some myths and facts about flesh-eating bacteria.

Flesh-eating bacteria is not one type but a group of bacteria that do not literally “eat” tissue; they release toxins that cause sepsis and eventual necrosis of tissue. The two most common forms of the condition are Necrotizing fasciitis (the cause of the Georgia veteran’s illness) and Vibrio vulnificus (the cause of the Florida outbreak). Necrotizing fasciitis is a virulent form of Group A strep infection, most commonly known for strep throat. It invades the connective tissue and the toxins it releases there may cause the nearby tissue to die. Often, no point of infection is found. The initial infection in the Georgia case remains unknown. Strong intravenous antibiotics must be issued to treat it, and amputations are often needed to save the patient’s life. Vibrio vulnificus is a bacteria usually found in warm coastal areas. It is usually contacted by eating infected seafood or by exposure of an open wound. Raw oysters are one source of the infection.

Both types of flesh-eating bacteria have poternially high mortality rates – as much as a third of patients with the condition die – but thankfully, both are rare. In 2013, an estimated 1,207 people were diagnosed with Necrotizing fasciitis. In 2011, only 113 people were diagnosed with Vibrio vulnificus.

Since Necrotizing fasciitis is almost always caused by a break in the skin, it is very unlikely to be passed on from person to person. Vibrio vulnificus has never been confirmed to have passed person to person. While a popular story proclaimed that bananas could carry flesh-eating bacteria, the bacteria would not survive on a banana. The outbreak in Florida is not an unusual occurrence: the bacteria is usually present on beaches from May to October. It’s not the first time multiple people have been diagnosed, either. Refugees from Hurricane Katrina were often diagnosed with Vibrio vulnificus flesh-eating bacteria.

Ultimately, most of the things you can do to avoid being infected with flesh-eating bacteria are simple. Any wound should be cleaned and disinfected as soon as possible. Swimmers should not enter the water with open wounds, and the CDC recommends people abstain from eating raw seafood. Most of the affected are immunocompromised individuals. If any wound becomes sore and painful, blisters or ulcers, or changes color, seek medical attention immediately.

(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia via CDC/James Gathany)