Science

Flesh-Eating Bacteria: The Facts You Need To Know

Eating raw or undercooked oysters has been linked to the vibrio vulnificus bacterium.
Eating raw or undercooked oysters has been linked to the vibrio vulnificus bacterium.
Credit Yumi Kimura / flickr.com/Yumi Kimura
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A deadly strain of flesh-eating bacteria affects about 650 to 850 people in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The condition, known as necrotizing fasciitis, is making headlines across the country as cases are on the rise along with temperatures. Several types of bacteria can cause the rare, but potentially fatal infection.

“The bacteria themselves are very common. We encounter them every day,” Amy Kirby, an assistant research professor at Emory University’s Center for Global Safe Water, said in an interview on “A Closer Look.”

The flesh-eating bacteria can live in shallow, murky, warm fresh water or in the ocean.

“You really find them associated with warm water,” Kirby said.

Vibrio vulnificus is a bacterium found in salt or brackish water. Cases of this strain of flesh-eating bacteria have been consistently higher in Florida since 2008, according to data from the Florida Department of Health. In 2014, there were 32 confirmed cases of vibrio vulnificus compared to 16 confirmed cases seven years earlier.

About 40 percent of vibrio vulnificus cases are fatal, according to the CDC. While you can get this particular strain of bacteria from swimming in the ocean with a cut or sore, the most common way of getting the illness is by eating raw or undercooked oysters or handling marine life.

Other bacteria ─ primarily group A Streptococcus (group A strep), Klebsiella, Clostridium, Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Aeromonas hydrophila ─ are also responsible for necrotizing fasciitis. Group A strep infections, while usually treatable, are the most common cause of necrotizing fasciitis.

The bacterial infection usually spreads from contact with an open sore or wound on a person’s body. In rare cases it can be transmitted from person to person. Once inside the body, the bacteria spreads rapidly, and toxins released by the bacteria cause muscles and soft tissue to die.

“These infections are extremely rare,” Kirby said.

In 2013, there were only 88 recorded cases of necrotizing fasciitis, Kirby said.

Symptoms may include: pain or soreness;  red or purple discoloration of the skin; swelling; ulcers, blisters or black spots on the skin; vomiting; fever; or chills. Symptoms usually show up within an hour, Kirby said.

If symptoms appear, quick hospitalization is critical. Strong, intravenous antibiotics are needed to clear the body of the bacteria before toxins destroy soft tissue and blood flow to the area, CDC representative Ian Branam said in an email.

The CDC recommends good wound care and hygiene as a preventative to flesh-eating infections. Use a clean, dry bandage on open or draining wounds, seek immediate first aid for cuts or gashes, avoid swimming with an active infection or open wound, and be sure to wash your hands thoroughly.

Beachgoers should avoid eating raw or undercooked oysters or shellfish, and avoid cross contaminating raw seafood with other foods, the Florida Department of Health said. Wear gloves or other protective clothing when handling shellfish.

Don’t forget to stock your basic first-aid kit with something to flush the wound, an antibiotic cream and bandages, Kirby said.

It’s important to remember that flesh-eating bacteria infections are rare though.

“… People that are healthy and have a strong immune system don’t have any problem with these,” Kirby said.