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The Truth About Flesh Eating Diseases

by Staci Marks on June 11, 2012

Twenty-four-year-old Aimee Copeland found herself without a foot, an entire leg, and hands a month after being admitted to the hospital for a leg wound. She had been using a homemade zipline that broke and gashed her leg. Twenty staples were used to close the cut but a short while later doctors discovered infection had set in. Known as Necrotizing Fasciitis, the “flesh-eating” disease began to enter her bloodstream and the doctors knew there would be no saving the leg. Unfortunately, it spread to the rest of her body and her other foot had to be amputated as well. The scariest part of this story is that this kind of incident is not isolated.

Case Frequency and Instances

CNN reported that there are fewer than 250 cases of this kind of infection reported every year, as estimated by the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Roemmele, a co-founder of the National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation, recently heard the tragic story of Aimee Copeland and shared some interesting insight. Herself a survivor of the infection, Roemmele said she has known of many similar incidents — some including the death of the infected individual within 24 hours.

Apparently, the toughest part about dealing with the disease is the diagnosis in the early stages. It’s hard for doctors to tell if someone has Necrotizing Fasciitis right away. Fighting it by the time it is discovered is extremely difficult. If identified early on, however, it can be treated with standard antibiotics fairly successfully.

Not Really Flesh-eating

The National Center for Biotechnology Information disproves the idea that Necrotizing Fasciitis is actually flesh-eating. The bacteria enter the body through damaged skin (cuts or scrapes) and as it grows, toxins are released into the bloodstream and nearby cells. This causes the damage to spread as more flesh becomes infected and as the tissue dies, more bacteria enter the bloodstream. This carries the bacteria to other parts of the body that can become infected as well.

Causes and Solutions

Weak immune systems provide the highest risk to this happening, but even then the disease is very rare. The best prevention against this kind of infection is to thoroughly clean any cuts or open wounds. This will reduce the chance that bacterial growth will become established.

If you do detect any of the symptoms, such as pain disproportionate to the wound or injury, and severe flu symptoms followed by a raging thirst and dehydration, get to a doctor as soon as possible. Prompt diagnosis is necessary in order to prevent disfigurement or loss of limb.

Although organizations are attempting to promote general public awareness, educating yourself and paying attention to the beginning symptoms will significantly boost your chances of catching the infection in its early stages.

If you do contract Necrotizing Fasciitis and end up in the hospital to have it treated, the National Necrotizing Fasciitis website lists a few things you can expect. First of all, antibiotic IV therapy will be used to combat the disease to contain and prevent spreading. In addition to the antibiotics, aggressive skin removal is usually necessary in order to prevent loss of life.

Happy Ending

Going back to the story about Aimee Copeland, her father blogged that after a rough week of phantom pain and emotional struggles, her lungs have returned to health and she can finally speak again.She is still in critical condition, being kept in a burn center, but doctors expect her to make a fully recovery. Despite being short a few limbs, Aimee is lucky; many cases of this infection end in death.

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