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Keeping safe from flesh-eating bacteria

Monday - 7/16/2012, 5:58am  ET

AP: 3dc29399-a8af-43aa-bfd7-5d4851b42761
In this image released Monday, July 2, 2012, by Tom Adkins, shows Aimee Copeland, right, with medic Kori Mills as Copeland leaves a hospital in Augusta Ga., headed for an inpatient rehabilitation clinic. Copeland left a Georgia hospital just weeks after a flesh-eating disease took her limbs but not her life. After nearly two months of battling the rare infection, called necrotizing fasciitis, Copeland headed to an inpatient rehabilitation clinic, where she'll learn to use a wheelchair after having her left leg, right foot and both hands amputated. (AP Photo/Tom Adkins)

Paula Wolfson, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - The story of the young Georgia women who lost parts of four limbs to flesh-eating bacteria has made headlines around the world and has led to increased concern about this mysterious and dangerous condition.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says nationally there are about 650 to 800 cases a year of the disease, which is formally known as necrotizing fasciitis. The disease is linked to one type of bacteria: Group A strep.

But that is, at best, a guesstimate. Group A strep is the most common bacteria associated with necrotizing fasciitis, but hardly the only one. To make matters more confusing, all these various kinds of bacteria can cause numerous conditions.

That makes it tough to pinpoint the exact number of cases of flesh-eating bacteria nationally or locally.

David Trump, the top epidemiologist for the state of Virginia, says cases in the Commonwealth are not common.

David Blythe, assistant director of Maryland's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, offers a similar assessment. He says the disease "is extremely rare, but it does occur ... and it can be very dangerous."

Technically, necrotizing fasciitis is a deep tissue infection. When the invading bacteria release toxins, the tissue can begin to die.

Trump says the case in Georgia is "obviously very scary ... but that is a rare occurrence."

He says most cases, if detected and treated early with aggressive antibiotics and perhaps even surgery, can be managed.

Local hospitals say they do see cases, but they are sporadic.

Dr. Gary Simon, director of the division of infectious disease at George Washington University Hospital, says he sees maybe one or two cases a year.

"I have never seen a case as severe as the case in Georgia," he says.

Simon says he saw cases in people who have been in the Chesapeake Bay.

"These bacteria live in the water, especially in brackish water," he says.

The risk to most people is small, but goes up for anyone who enters the water with an open wound, Simon says.

That is because the most common way for these bacteria to enter the body is through a break in the skin, and Simon says that can happen from something as simple as stepping on a shell.

His advice: Be careful and check out anything suspicious.

"I think if somebody gets an infection, something that gets red and swollen and hot, you go see a physician or you go to an urgent care center or an emergency room if you are in a locale where you don't have a physician," he says.

But should someone avoid the bay, or the beach, or even a lake or pond?

"If you have an open wound skin condition, you certainly should not be out swimming" in that kind of water, Trump says.

He says people whose immune systems are compromised, such as cancer patients, should also stay away, as should folks with chronic skin conditions.

The National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation says all it takes is an opening in the skin the size of a pin prick to create a possible point of entry for dangerous bacteria. It says the single biggest preventative measure against flesh-eating disease is keeping the skin intact.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)