Flesh-eating bacteria strike 2 men in Florida

Necrotizing fasciitis infects up to 1,200 a year

By Susan Scutti, CNN

(CNN) - Beach season has begun, and with it comes an increase in waterborne dangers. Two recent examples from the Sunshine State highlight the gruesome possibilities.

In March, an Ohio man visiting family in Florida for spring break took a boating trip with his brother-in-law to the Weedon Island Preserve in Tampa Bay. Days later, Barry Briggs felt his foot begin to puff slightly and figured his sunburn was the cause. He boarded his flight home to Ohio, according to the Barry's Medical Updates Facebook page.

However, during the span of that flight, the swelling became extreme. When he arrived in Ohio, he was rushed to Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, where doctors diagnosed necrotizing fasciitis, a rare infection commonly referred to as "flesh-eating."

The cause? Bacteria

Essentially, the condition involves bacteria that stop blood circulation and cause tissue to die and skin to decay. Roughly 700 to 1,200 cases of necrotizing fasciitis are reported each year in the United States, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although more than one type of bacteria can cause necrotizing fasciitis, public health experts believe that group A Streptococcus bacteria are the most common cause, the CDC reports. Group A strep can cause infections ranging from relatively minor illnesses, such as strep throat, to very serious diseases such as necrotizing fasciitis.

Vibrio bacteria also cause an estimated 80,000 infections and 100 deaths each year in the United States, according to the CDC. Consuming raw or undercooked seafood or exposing a wound to seawater or brackish water is the cause of these infections, though not all would lead to necrotizing fasciitis.

Usually, it takes a break in the skin to allow bacteria to enter the body, but Briggs said he doesn't remember being scratched or bitten, and his doctors found no evidence of a break in the skin. Blunt trauma that doesn't tear the skin can also cause necrotizing fasciitis, according to the CDC.

Skin grafts, surgeries and several antibiotics helped Briggs' doctors save his foot over a grueling 11 days in the hospital.

"It was going one inch an hour up my leg," Briggs told CNN affiliate WKBN. "I'm incredibly fortunate to have all my toes, to have my foot, to be alive."

Fish hook wound

Over Easter weekend, Mike Walton became a second recent victim of necrotizing fasciitis. According to a GoFundMe page set up by his friends, the lifelong Florida resident and fisherman was angling in the Gulf of Mexico when a fish hook cut his hand.

Hours later, Walton was admitted to Tampa General Hospital for the growing black blister on his hand. Doctors informed him that the infection was spreading fast and that he might lose his arm.

First, doctors opened and cleaned the wound, and then Walton underwent surgery. He also required an IV to administer strong antibiotics.

Last week, a post on the GoFundMe page reports that his doctor suspects three possible infections that have yet to be identified. The culture will take several weeks to confirm.

Even with treatment, necrotizing fasciitis takes the lives of 1 in 3 people who develop it. It can lead to sepsis, shock and organ failure, according to the CDC. No one is safe from developing an infection caused by flesh-eating bacteria, but most people who succumb have weakened resistance due to other health problems, such as diabetes, kidney disease and cancer. Good wound care helps to prevent all forms of bacterial skin infection.

The CDC recommends cleaning all minor cuts and injuries that break the skin with soap and water. Sanitize and cover open wounds with clean, dry bandages until they heal. See a doctor if you are punctured or receive a deep or serious wound.

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