U.S. Graduate Student Loses Limbs to Rare Flesh-Eating Bacteria

ALTudor Editor
  • Aimee Copeland, a 24-year-old graduate student at University of West Georgia, has now lost both hands, a leg, a foot, and tissue on her abdomen to the flesh-eating infection known as necrotizing fasciitis.


    Copeland fell from a homemade zip line over a Georgia river in early May and suffered a deep gash on her leg. That’s when the aggressive bacteria Aeromonas hydrophila – one of the types of bacteria that causes necrotizing fasciitis (NF) – entered her system.


    NF is a very rare condition that occurs when a type of bacteria (most often A strep, the same one that causes Strep throat) enters the body through a cut or scrape.  It doesn’t have to be a large cut such as the one Copeland suffered, either; even one as small as a paper cut or pin prick can put someone at risk. Once there, the bacteria begins to grow, releasing toxins that destroy the skin, muscle, blood vessels, and underlying tissues. The condition worsens as the tissues die, since the toxins are then released into the bloodstream and begin to spread throughout the body.

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    The first symptom of NF may be the appearance of a small, sore lump or bump on the skin that rapidly changes to very painful bruised area. The center of this area may blacken as the tissue begins to die, and the skin may begin to ooze.  People who have this condition may also experience generalized signs of an infection such as fever, nausea, dizziness, or chills, and they may go into shock.


    Immediate treatment in a hospital is needed to prevent death from NF.  Patients typically are treated with strong intravenous antibiotics and donor antibodies that help fight infection. Depending on the type of bacteria that’s caused the infection, doctors may also treated the patient in hyperbaric chambers.  These are devices that expose patients to a 100-percent oxygen environment under high pressure, which sometimes helps control bacterial infections.  Surgeons also remove dead skin and drain sores in affected areas, and amputations are common because the bacteria destroys blood vessels and cuts off circulation to infected limbs.  Later, reconstructive surgery is often performed to graft skin onto areas where tissue has been scarred by infection or where it has been removed.


    It’s important to remember that this is a very uncommon infection. A 1998 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found between 500 and 1500 cases of the NF worldwide in that year, with about 20 percent of these patients dying from the infection.  (Note: The National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation believes these figures may be slightly higher due to underreporting of the condition.)


    Fortunately, there are easy ways to protect yourself and those around you. If you get a scrape or cut, clean and treat it with antibiotic ointment right away. Use antibacterial soaps and hand cleansers, and wash your hands frequently. Because the most common form of bacteria that causes NF is the same as the one that causes Strep throat, avoid contact with people who have this ailment or use hand sanitizer after contact with them. A cough or a sneeze from someone who has Strep throat can spread the bacteria onto open wounds on the skin.  And if you have Strep throat, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze to help protect others.


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    Copeland’s father is detailing her courageous fight against this infection on a Facebook blog, and he reports that his daughter has been greatly encouraged by the international outpouring of support.  You can follow Andy Copeland’s Facebook page here.





    Sources:  A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia; National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation; CNN.com; CBS News; Facebook.

Published On: May 18, 2012