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When it Comes to Flesh Eating Bacteria, the Odds Are On Your Side

Janice Haney Carr, Centers for Disease Control

There’s been a new case of so-called “flesh eating bacteria,” this time in Texas.

44-year-old Keith Korth was fishing last weekend at Port O’Connor on the Gulf Coast. According to reports, an infected blister needed medical attention, and was diagnosed as a fast-moving bacterial attack called necrotizing fasciitis, better known as flesh-eating bacteria.

(You can read more about necrotizing fasciitis, but be warned – the pictures are gruesome.)

Korth is recovering at a Houston hospital after having much of his leg amputated. A family member, reached by phone this afternoon, says he’s feeling much better. The infection has apparently been stopped, she says, and the family expects him to go home to Brenham, Texas, on Monday or Tuesday.

Scientists aren't sure why some people become infected with the flesh-eating bacteria. Most of us are in contact with the organism every day, and many of us carry it on or in our bodies. The culprit is the same bacteria that causes strep throat – group A Streptococcusand other bacteria like Staphylococcusand E. coli.

But why does this everyday organism sometimes run wild and attack so quickly and catastrophically?

Dr. Eric L. Brown, of the UT School of Public Health in Houston, says that a person's overall health and immune system strength are factors, but that "sometimes it comes down to being in the wrong place at the wrong time." 

Brown says that the organisms produce toxins and enzymes that essentially "digest your skin." They can also move beyond the skin and destroy other body tissues. And once in the bloodstream, the bacteria move through the body and can establish new colonies of infection.

Penicillin will kill the strep organism, but in some cases, says Brown, the attack moves so quickly through the body that the drug is not able to reach it.

According to Brown, there are more than 10,000 cases in the United States each year of the bacteria becoming invasive. A very small percentage of these actually attack the body – and become "flesh-eating."

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