MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Many people will travel this Fourth of July and make plans to swim in lakes or even travel to swim in the ocean, but that brings some season health concerns that could be life-or-death.
A flesh-eating bacteria made a 12-year-old girl visiting Florida very sick and even killed a woman who cut her leg while also visiting a Florida beach.
Health professionals in Memphis said the condition is a type of strep infection that’s not very common, but it can cause death if not treated immediately. The flesh-eating bacteria, called Necrotizing Fasciitis, can turn an entire vacation upside-down in a hurry.
“The term ‘flesh eating bacteria’ is sort of a term that gets people’s attention,” said Steve Threlkeld, an infectious disease specialist at Baptist Memphis. It sounds teririble and it is! It really is several different kinds of infections.”
Threlkeld said flesh-eating bacteria is a form of Strep A, a germ that is common until it gets into a small cut or scrape. That’s when the bacteria shuts down blood vessels and kills soft tissue.
“In sort of a galloping fashion, up an arm, up a leg or abdomen, or so forth, and you have to go in and literally remove that soft tissue and skin overlying the muscle to be able to save the patient in many circumstances because it makes you very ill when it happens,” he said.
He said the bacteria can move quickly, so it’s important to clean wounds and get antibiotics as soon as a person notices something unusual, like a cut that is turning red, expanding or very painful.
The bacteria can thrive in warm gulf water, lakes, swimming pools or even hot tubs on the coast or right here in Shelby County.
“In Shelby County, we average about 30 to 50 evasive group A strep infections a year,” said David Sweat, the Shelby County Health Department’s chief of epidemiology. “It’s not super common.”
While it’s not possible to rid oceans and lakes of the bacteria entirely, keeping pools and hot tubs clean and checking chlorine levels can make sure bacteria doesn’t have anywhere to grow.
For Artis Wilkins, who was on his way to Texas, images of what Necrotizing Fasciitis can do are shocking.
“This is the first I’ve ever heard about this stuff,” Wilkins, from Peoria, Illinois, said. “So I want everybody to know to be cautious about not going in there with an open scar because situations like this, you just get eat up.”
While it’s rare for anyone to contract the bacteria, persons with health problems that lower the body’s ability to fight infection are vulnerable.
The best advice is if you have any kind of open wound, stay out of the water.