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Florida’s deadly flesh-eating disease has ancient ties

By Carlos R. Munoz • Jul 15, 2019 at 11:00 AM

The flesh-eating bacteria that has alarmed Florida beachgoers has been around since ancient times.

Scattered in the annals of medical history, the flesh-eating bug, the galloping gangrene and now flesh-eating bacteria, or necrotizing fasciitis — coined in 1952 — is described as a tissue-killing disease that was first mentioned by Hippocrates in the fifth century B.C.

Civil War army surgeon Joseph Jones described the disease that killed 1,215 of 2,642 infected Confederate soldiers, the National Institute of Health says. He called it "hospital gangrene."

The Center for Disease Control says necrotizing fasciitis is a rare bacterial infection that spreads quickly in the body and can cause death. It is believed to be a secondary symptom of several bacteria that are common in our environment, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Among them are group A streptococcus — the most common cause that also leads to minor illnesses such as strep throat — and Vibrio vulnificus, a naturally occurring bacteria found in warm, salty waters and bays.

"Vibrio vulnificus can cause flesh around the open wound to die," CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said. "The majority of patients infected with V. vulnificus are hospitalized. About 1 out of 5 people with this infection die, sometimes within a day or two of becoming ill."

Necrotizing fasciitis develops after the offending bacteria enter the body through breaks in the skin such as cuts and scrapes, burns, insect bites, puncture wounds and surgical wounds. People also can get the malady from blunt trauma that does not break the skin.

Early signs of the fast-spreading disease are redness, swelling and pain near scratches and open wounds. If blisters are seen or symptoms are followed by fever, nausea, vomiting and flu-like symptoms, you should immediately see a doctor.

Individuals with the greatest risk of exposure are very young children, the elderly and people with chronic diseases or weakened immune symptoms.

Necrotizing fasciitis can be treated with antibiotics and may sometimes require surgery to remove damaged tissue, the FDOH says.

For a surgeon, it is one of the most challenging infections, sometime costing patients their limbs or life, the National Institute of Health warns.


Deadly trips to Florida beaches

Recent cases of the disease in Florida followed visits to Gulf beaches.

One of them involved a Tennessee man who died from a flesh-eating bacteria just 48 hours after he was at a Florida beach.

William “Dave” Bennett and his wife traveled to Okaloosa County two weeks ago to visit their daughter, Cheryl Wiygul, who shared the story in a lengthy Facebook post.

The woman said they went to the beach in Destin twice and then to a nearby bayou on July 5 to ride a Jet Ski and play ball in the water. About 12 hours after they had left the water, Bennett woke up with a fever, chills and cramps.

Her parents returned home to Memphis on July 6 and he immediately went to the hospital, where doctors noticed a “terribly swollen black spot” on his back, Wiygul said. The spot soon doubled in size and a new one started to pop up.

The 66-year-old became septic overnight and died the afternoon of July 7.

“Less than 48 hours after getting out of the water feeling great, the bacteria had destroyed him,” his daughter wrote.

Lab results showed he had vibrio vulnificus, an illness caused by vibrio bacteria, which live in certain coastal waters and usually threaten swimmers in warmer months, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vibrio infection can lead to necrotizing fasciitis, a flesh-eating disease that mostly affects those with compromised immune system, which was Bennett’s case.

Wiygul said her father had battled cancer for years.

“I knew you shouldn’t swim with an open wound but I didn’t realize he shouldn’t be in the water with his immune system,” she said, urging everyone to be cautious when going into the water.

“There needs to be signs posted at every beach, every city and state park, and every bayou stating that ‘due to naturally occurring bacteria in the water people with open wounds or compromised immune systems should not enter.'"

Earlier this summer, Carolyn "Lynn" Fleming of Ellenton died after cutting her leg during a walk on Coquina Beach on Anna Maria Island. She had two strokes and kidney failure and despite surgeries to combat the infection, she died two weeks after her fall.

More cases were reported at Siesta Key, Manasota Key and Turtle Beach in Sarasota County.

G. Steven Huard, spokesman for the FDOH in Sarasota County, said people can protect themselves through situational awareness. They should not be scared to go to the beach.

"You have to know yourself and your own health conditions," Huard said. "If you are a normally healthy person and don't have cuts and bruises on your body, there is really no reason not to go to the beach. Millions go every weekend. If you are someone who is immune compromised and have health issues, whatever they may be, and you have cuts and wounds on you, it's a good time to stay out of the water."

Warmer weather and low salinity promotes bacteria growth, Huard said. Statewide, Gulf temperatures have peaked at 89 degrees this summer.

"This is a good time of year to pay attention to the environmental conditions we live in," he said.


Tips to protect yourself

• Avoid walking, sitting or swimming in Gulf or bay waters with open wounds.

• Properly clean and treat wounds after accidentally exposing a wound to Gulf or bay waters, getting injured while in the water or getting an injury while cleaning or handling seafood.

• Rinsing with fresh water after swimming can additionally reduce the risk of exposure.

• Seek medical treatment immediately if you develop signs or symptoms of an infection (redness, swelling, fever, severe pain in area of red or swollen skin) near or around a wound.

Source: Florida Department of Health


EDITOR’S NOTE: Nelson Oliveira of the New York Daily News (TNS) contributed to this story.


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