BALTIMORE, Md. (WUSA)-- Several alarming cases of flesh-eating bacteria have been in the news in rapid succession. And one of the most devastating involves a bug that lives in many waterways, including the Chesapeake Bay.
Georgia grad student Aimee Copeland is beginning to speak again, and has been taken off a respirator. Her family and doctors say these are good signs for her eventual recovery, but the damage caused by a tissue-devouring bacteria has been done. Doctors had to amputate both her hands, part of her abdomen, one of her legs, and her remaining foot to stop its alarming spread.
Overall, necrotizing fasciitis is rare; when it does happen, it is usually triggered by Group A strep bacteria. That's what caused Lana Kuykendall's infection; the new mother of twins in South Carolina went to the hospital because of a painful spot on her leg that was rapidly growing larger. Doctors performed seven surgeries to stop the infection; fortunately, no amputations were needed.
Aimee Copeland's case is different. The culprit is a bug called Aeromonas hydrophila, and it got into her body through a gash suffered in a zip-line accident on a Georgia river. Aeromonas lives in fresh water lakes, rivers and streams, as well as environments... meaning a mixture of salt water and fresh.
Amy Horneman, PhD has studied Aeromonas for almost 30 years, and has a freezer-full of samples of this micro-organism at Baltimore's VA Medical Center, taken from infections around the world.
She says of the 29 species, eight are known to cause illness in people. In most cases, it's a mild diahrrea if a swimmer swallows water. But if one of the virulent strains gets in a cut, it can cause horrific damage. Horneman says people who work and relax on the Chesapeake Bay need to know about Aeromonas because it thrives there.
"Boating, swimming, crabbing, fishing, kayaking," says Horneman of the many summertime activities that bring people to the Bay. "If we ingest water or get a cut or a wound while we're in this aquatic environment, there's the potential for certain strains of Aeromonas to cause disease."
Dr. Gary Simon is Chief of Infectious Disease at George Washington University Hospital. He says Aeromonas infections through cuts are pretty unusual, but they do happen. He says any such wound should be washed out immediately, and watched carefully.
Dr. Simon advises, "With local infections, for the most part, most people see a little redness and they don't go to the doctor. But if you start getting fever and chills, you better come in."
Horneman says its smart to be vigilant about any open wound. "You want to treat it with an anti-septic ointment, something like hydrogen peroxide. And keep it covered with a bandage, and you want to keep an eye on it. Because some of these cases of necrotizing faciitis can expand very rapidly, and just in a matter of hours become life-threatening."