What IS flesh-eating bacteria?

By Sandra

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- With all of the reports popping up about patients suffering from "flesh-eating bacteria," one has to ask: just what IS this scary-sounding disease?A search on the Center for Disease Control's website doesn't lead straight to a flesh-eating bacteria page like I thought it would. Instead you're directed to the "Group A Streptococcal (GAS) Disease" page. Turns out the most common "flesh-eating bacteria" is in the same family as the much milder strep bacteria and the information is mixed in with strep throat. It's the scary black sheep of the strep family.The CDC website states: "Two of the most severe, but least common, forms of invasive GAS disease are necrotizing fasciitis and streptococcal toxic shock syndrome. Necrotizing fasciitis (occasionally described by the media as "the flesh-eating bacteria") is a rapidly progressive disease which destroys muscles, fat, and skin tissue."

Editor's note: In a more recent article, published in June 2012, the CDC clarifies that "this very rare disease 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."

According to the CDC, the trouble starts when the bacteria gets into parts of the body bacteria doesn't belong: blood, muscle or lungs.

That's what happened to Aimee Copeland, the 24-year-old woman who contracted the bacteria after an accident. She gashed her leg after falling from a homemade zip line over a Georgia river, and the bacteria took hold in the wound. She lost most of her left leg, her right foot and both hands.

The CDC says that only happens to about six or seven percent of the 9,000-11,000 strep cases in the U.S. each year. The site also says that about 20 percent of people who get necrotizing fasciitis die.

But not all cases where the bacteria comes in contact with someone gets so severe. Many healthy people have no symptoms at all. It's the folks who are already facing problems like cancer, diabetes, and heart or lung disease that have the higher risk.

So what are the symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis? According to the CDC, symptoms include: Severe pain and swelling, often rapidly increasing {} Fever Redness at a wound site

"Once it gets down below the skin, and as I say, it's pretty rare, it can sort of take off in all directions," said Infectious Diseases Specialist Dr. Michael Kilby. "The infection can spread rapidly, like across a whole limb or across a surgical site if you've just had surgery and it begins to cause bleeding, bruising and swelling."

The CDC suggests that doctors who catch the rare bacteria's infection prescribe high dose penicillin and clindamycin. They also state:

"For persons with necrotizing fasciitis, early and aggressive surgery is often needed to remove damaged tissue and stop disease spread. Early treatment may reduce the risk of death from invasive group A streptococcal disease. However, even the best medical care does not prevent death in every case."

As with any disease, early detection and awareness are key. One patient admitted to MUSC back in late February for necrotizing fasciitis was treated early on and is now recuperating.

We'll be updating further as we continue to develop that story.