Joseph Allen, a mechanic from Bryan County, caught more than he bargained for on a recent fishing trip in the Ogeechee River.
What started out as a routine day of fishing turned near deadly when an open sore on Allen’s arm became contaminated with flesh-eating-bacteria.
Allen was fishing near Dasher’s Landing when he had troubles with his boat and got out into the water to try to repair it. When he got out of the water he couldn’t stand up and EMS was called to make sure he was okay.
Allen’s brother in law, Braxton Jeffers said they thought it was just exhaustion and sent him home, but something wasn’t quite right.
The next day Allen had a temperature of 104 degrees and the arm that had the cut on it was starting to turn purple and the sore started to get larger as well.
When he got to the hospital they discovered he had come into contact with a flesh eating bacteria that spread so rapidly that they had to remove most of his skin and are hoping that it does not infect the deeper muscles so that he does not have to lose his arm.
With skin grafts and therapy he should recover, but others have not been so lucky with a young girl recently losing her life to brain eating bacteria that infected her when she accidentally inhaled water up her nose.
Allen’s wife Gladys was upset that there might be something wrong with the water in the river which has had a history of fish kills, some of which were thought to occur due to run off from a local manufacturer allowed to discharge certain amounts of waste into the water.
The Environmental Protection Agency is testing the waters, but states that the bacteria regularly occur in the hottest part of summer, but that most people are not affected by the bacteria which is related to E. coli which is also commonly found in nearby salt and fresh water creeks in the Chatham and Bryan county areas in hot summer months.
Gladys Allen was hoping that Savannah River Keepers and the EPA would clean up the river, but the bacteria are naturally occurring and not the result of pollution.
Allen’s brother in law, Jeffers was concerned that there were still people swimming in the water where the incident occurred as well as eating the fish that they catch out the river, which prompted many to ask whether they should also be concerned.
Health officials simply stated that people should stay out of the water if they have an open sore or cut and that no one should swallow or inhale the water, but as most of us know, it is almost impossible not to have at least one cut or small lesion on the body during the summer when outdoor activities, home improvement and gardening take their toll as well as insect bites or even claw marks from kittens and puppies. So do you need to stay out of the water if you have any open cuts at all and if the bacteria are that fast acting and dangerous, why aren’t more people and animals infected with it?
The disease associated with the bacteria is known as necrotizing fasciitis. Necrotizing meaning dying tissues or cells and fascia meaning skin or a band of tissue.
Most people are not infected by it, but those with compromised immune systems, diabetics those taking certain drugs, recovering from chemo or having underlying cancer or liver ailments may have severe and instantaneous reactions like swelling of the infected area, fever, vomiting or nausea.
It is not contagious, or rather, does not spread from direct contact with the skin of another infected person.
The bacteria thrive in warm water and both salt and fresh water and even chlorinated water in pools and water parks can harbor the organisms, though colder flowing water is less likely to provide the conditions the bacteria need to survive.
Not long ago a nine year old girl from Kansas died from a brain eating amoeba known as Naegleria fowleri which if inhaled, can find its way into the brain and central nervous system, destroying the surrounding tissue.
It makes make-believe Zombie stories seem tame in comparison, but again, officials say there is no need to panic or stay out of the water this summer.
A 12 year old boy contracted the bacteria while knee-boarding in a ditch near his home and later died, though it does not have to mean a death sentence.
In the last 50 years, about 130 cases of brain eating bacteria have been reported, killing all but three of the people it infected, so it is serious business, but again, the odds of it happening to you are rare.
You can protect yourself by not drinking water directly from rivers and lakes, staying out of the water if you have an exposed cut, use nose plugs and don’t stir up the sediment in shallow waterways, as well as keeping your head above water.
There is another bacteria known as Vibrio vulnificus that is found in warm salt water and is related to the same bacterium that causes cholera.
In Florida, this year, about 30 people have contacted this bacteria and ten of those have died, but considering millions of people swim in the Florida waters six or more months of the year, these cases are still very rare.
Most people remember Aimee Copeland, a 24 year old West Georgia graduate student who went zip lining and got cut by the zip line when it broke as she fell into the water. The flesh eating bacteria that caused her to lose parts of her arms and leg is known as Aeromonas hydrophilia.
There is actually a National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation that studies all types of flesh eating infections which are also prevalent in hospitals and are often very resistant to anti-bacterial treatments, forcing doctors to remove infected body parts to prevent the bacteria from spreading.
Jacksonville University in Florida recently found flesh eating bacteria in the St. John’s River, testing positive for both Vibrio vulnificus and Vibrio parahaemolyticus which can cause severe gastrointestinal illness.
Milder forms of similar infections can cause strep throat and staff infections on dry land, but flesh eating bacteria, if left unchecked have a tendency to destroy muscle tissue as well as skin.
The National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation suggests frequent hand-washing, immediate medical treatment for wounds, limited contact with anyone with a strep infection, and teaching children the need for cleanliness.
“The single biggest preventative measure is keeping the skin intact,” the foundation says.
The skin acts as a natural barrier to many kind of infections and even small wounds like a blister, bruise (which weakens the exterior wall of the skin) or a thorn prick in the finger can allow bad bacteria to enter your body causing symptoms that may mimic the cold or flu, cause you to develop a rash, swelling or fever.
Treatment for necrotizing fasciitis includes high doses of the antibiotics penicillin and clindamycin; “early and aggressive surgery is often needed to remove damaged tissue and stop disease spread,” says the CDC.
People who have the greatest risk for developing necrotizing fasciitis are the ones who have a known chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, and heart or lung disease, or those who use steroids, are recovering from chicken pox or even badly blistered skin from too much sun.
Elderly adults and very young children are also more susceptible and oddly people with a history of alcohol abuse or abuse of drugs.
The infection is fatal in about one third of all cases.
Symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis include redness, swelling, and pain in the affected area. Blisters may be seen at the site of the infection. Fever,nausea, vomiting, and other flu-like symptoms are common.
Symptoms develop rapidly, usually within 24 hours after the bacteria enter a wound in the skin and the pain is said to be very intense.
Again, the chances of you coming into contact with a flesh eating bacteria and the chances of it making you ill are very rare, but it would probably be smart to stay out of standing water in ditches and ponds, shower off after using public pools and not going swimming with open wounds.
There are a lot of scary things in the water, from fish that swim up your urethra, to flesh eating fish and sharks and poisonous creatures and most areas of water tend to attract a lot of nasty biting insects as well, but if you let that keep you from going swimming at most public beaches, pools and rivers, you’d have a pretty dull life, so just be cautious and if you do notice something strange or a purple spot appearing on your skin near an open wound, better be safe and have it checked out than ignore it and end up losing a limb or your life.