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Say what? 'Flesh-eating bacteria' explained
The microscopic Aeromonas hydrophila is found in freshwater or brackish water environments, according to the FDA.
May 14th, 2012
10:06 AM ET

Say what? 'Flesh-eating bacteria' explained

It sounds like something out of a horror film - a micro-organism that enters through an open wound and begins to consume your body from the inside out.

Unfortunately flesh-eating bacteria, or necrotizing fasciitis, isn't fiction. Aimee Copeland, a 24-year-old graduate student from Georgia, is fighting for her life in an Augusta hospital after contracting one type known as aeromonas hydrophila during a zip line adventure.

Aeromonas hydrophila is found in most, if not all, freshwater or brackish water environments (water that contains salt but is not saltwater), according to the Food and Drug Administration's "Bad Bug Book."

It is sometimes swallowed by swimmers, causing stomach or intestinal problems such as vomiting and diarrhea. It can also be found in fish and shellfish. The severity of the gastrointestinal infection depends on your immune system's ability to fight it off, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Aeromonas hydrophila can also enter the body through an open wound, as happened in the Copeland case. When that occurs the flesh-eating bacteria quickly reproduces, giving off toxins that destroy skin and soft tissue. Such bacteria is adept at hiding from the body's immune system, according to the National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation.

If necrotizing fasciitis is detected early, only skin or fat may need to be removed. But if the infection is detected later, amputation may be necessary to stop the spread of the bacteria.

Dr. William Schaffner, president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, says when Aeromonas hydrophila enters through an open wound, early diagnosis is difficult. The bacteria does its damage deep in the tissue and doesn't manifest itself on the skin's surface.

Patients should pay attention to any pain coming from a closed wound, as well as redness or drainage, he told CNN.

The frequency of Aeromonas hydrophilia infections is unknown, the FDA notes, because researchers only recently began trying to collect numbers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year there are about 10,000 U.S. cases of group A streptococcus, a collection of bacteria that includes necrotizing fasciitis. Approximately 20% of the cases of necrotizing fasciitis are fatal, according to the CDC.


soundoff (237 Responses)
  1. A Scientist

    This article is irresponsible. If you want to know more about this disease, read up on it yourself, don't take this article as a resource. For one, saying there are 10,000 cases of A strepp group exposure a year, of which necrotizing fascitis is included is like saying there are 300 billion people in the world, of which Charlie Manson is included.

    On top of that, the statement is inherently false. It's not a part of A strepp. Plus, just cause this bug gets into you, doesn't mean it's going to accomplish anything. Odds are, many of us have been exposed previously. The defining factor here is your immune system. If you have issues with that, then an exposure "might" (might with bells and whistles on it that is) cause problems.

    Don't cancel your vacation plans. I, on the other hand, am out of toilet paper, so I'm going to print this article out and have a quiet moment.

    May 14, 2012 at 16:37 | Report abuse | Reply
    • pork

      Watch for papercuts bro.

      May 14, 2012 at 16:42 | Report abuse |
    • joe

      Yes, I'm sure you're "a scientist". Uh-huh. Try brushing up on your reading comprehension skills.

      May 14, 2012 at 17:54 | Report abuse |
    • jack

      A scientist? right. Don't worry about it, these folks are not fifth graders.

      May 14, 2012 at 19:38 | Report abuse |
    • NetNinja

      Thank you for a better informed article, unfortunately CNN is the worse at reporting anything factual or substantial. Is this a place were C students report to learn how to report the news?

      May 14, 2012 at 19:51 | Report abuse |
    • JackWagon

      Hey, I'm really impressed. Are you a rocket scientist type? Do you even drive a Lexus? Wow, I'm impressed!!!

      May 14, 2012 at 19:55 | Report abuse |
    • Laura

      Actually, A Scientist is right on many points and the CNN article is a little sketchy. BTW, I'm a microbiologist, just in case you want to question my intelligence as well.

      May 14, 2012 at 20:07 | Report abuse |
    • Lisa

      Your an ASS.

      May 14, 2012 at 21:45 | Report abuse |
    • Olaf Big

      That's right, as so many of CNN articles, this one is written by an intern without any knowledge of the subject, and is not fact-checked by an expert. This quote does not make any sense: "each year there are about 10,000 U.S. cases of group A streptococcus, a collection of bacteria that includes necrotizing fasciitis". Streptococcus is a bacterium, necrotizing fasciitis is a disease. Strep causes a variety of diseases, and only rarely necrotizing fasciitis. The latter can be caused by other bacteria as well. And Aeromonas hydrophila implicated in this case is not even a close relative of Streptococcus.

      May 14, 2012 at 21:45 | Report abuse |
    • Blayze Kohime

      Well all it really asks you to do is make sure to watch for symptoms if you get an open wound. That's not unreasonable advice.

      Trying to word things to make you panic is just the way all news is done regardless of content.

      May 14, 2012 at 22:58 | Report abuse |
    • Michaelat

      I hope th

      May 15, 2012 at 00:47 | Report abuse |
    • A Linguist

      Based on your tenses, it would appear you wiped your ass with your own comment.

      May 15, 2012 at 05:39 | Report abuse |
    • noodlez

      a scientist who believes there are 300 Billion people in this world.

      300 billion.

      Plus, what you say, they say in the article. Re-read.

      May 17, 2012 at 13:06 | Report abuse |
    • Young Scientist

      There is no real science in this article. The author refers to necrotizinng fasciitis as a member of group A Streptococci. Necrotizing fasciitis is a SYNDROME (not an organism) caused by infections with certain Streptococci, such as Streptococcus pyogenes. The author of the article also makes NO attempt to dispel the absurd idea that the bacteria literally eats one's flesh. The destruction of the flesh is actually caused by bacterial exotoxins. These toxins can also trigger a systemic immune response, leading to toxic shock syndrome (TSS). While the destruction of the fascia tissue is disfiguring, it is TSS that is the real killer in these cases. The media is a huge reason why scientific ignorance is so rampant in this country. Why don't you hire someone who at least knows a LITTLE bit about what they are writing about CNN?

      May 17, 2012 at 14:29 | Report abuse |
    • Robert

      Oh good grief! Everybody take a deep breath....

      May 17, 2012 at 15:51 | Report abuse |
  2. Ron

    This article is about A Flesh eating bacteria, Not a flash in the pan Palin, I promise you if you ignore her she will go away. I get very frightened when I hear her name! To think that people in this country actually considered making her a VP. Are we that low in mentality?

    May 14, 2012 at 16:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • pork

      Yes Ron, yes we are. Have you read comments on sites like this one and Youtube? People are DUMB.

      May 14, 2012 at 16:41 | Report abuse |
    • ME

      I consider threadjackers to be among the most stupid; they can't even stay on topic. So unless you were responding to someone else - which I could not find - look in a mirror before you start complaining about the stupidity of others.

      May 14, 2012 at 19:00 | Report abuse |
  3. Alcohol - not the drinking kind...

    When a good-looking young chick like that falls victim to such a horrible fate as this, at least it has the benefit of getting the condition talked about and covered in the media.

    If it had been some ugly old stroker, it wouldn't have made the news with near as much of a splash.

    I wonder if flooding the wound immediately after the injury occurred with bottled water and/or lots of rubbing alcohol would've helped at all – or possibly prevented the infection altogether. One would tend to think that it would be of benefit.

    We know that rubbing alcohol does of course kill germs, but I wonder how much good it might've done in this case against this bacterium if used quickly.

    Education is the key. Just a simple thing for instance in my case like learning that flooding my hand with rubbing alcohol immediately after it was exposed to poison ivy (I'm extremely sensitive), saved me from the usual ten days of misery. Worked like a charm – but must be done within about five minutes, and the exposed area must not be rubbed – just flooded.

    So now when I'm working near poison ivy (pruning, picking blackberries, for example), I make sure there's rubbing alcohol nearby.

    And I've *always* flooded any type of wound with alcohol after flooding it with clean tap water. (But I've never suffered a wound while swimming in a lake or river.)

    May 14, 2012 at 16:45 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Nathan

      I just keep my body flooded with Alcohol and so far i've been good 🙂

      May 14, 2012 at 16:54 | Report abuse |
    • joe

      What a complete m o r o n.

      May 14, 2012 at 17:55 | Report abuse |
    • ncct

      I am sure Windex works just as well right? You need a placebo controlled trial to really prove your anecdote. I would not "flood" a wound with alcohol – may lead to more tissue damage and increase the chance for a necrotizing infection.

      May 14, 2012 at 18:34 | Report abuse |
    • the logical centrist

      I wondered if the original wound was flushed properly. It's extremely painful (the flushing with maybe saline) but better than this. These people are wealthy though, and will sue everyone in sight. I would if they just stapled up the original wound.

      May 18, 2012 at 22:36 | Report abuse |
  4. jdoe

    If you're a cow, then humans are like flesh-eating bacteria.

    May 14, 2012 at 17:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Steve

      Not really, because humans don't gnaw on cow parts while the cow is still alive.

      May 14, 2012 at 17:54 | Report abuse |
    • JackWagon

      I eat raw cows like most people eat apples. But I don't even peel my cows first. Just a couple of bottles of heinz ketchup and it's the best eating in the world. Also, it would be a "miracle" if thousands of children hadn't have died of hunger throughout the world. They didn't get their miracles, huh?

      May 14, 2012 at 19:39 | Report abuse |
  5. Dave

    This is so scary! makes me think twice lol, I get hurt all the time, haven't been to a doctor in several years, I sliced my arm open pretty good on a wrecked car fender a few months ago, just wrapped duck tape and went on my way while people were freaking out. I got a hook through my hand the other day trying to unhook a 18in eel. Usually I just let blood run for a minute and squeeze/suck the wound if it's small enough and figure I'm good to go.

    May 14, 2012 at 17:11 | Report abuse | Reply
    • For Real

      Ummm Dave, please stay inside, wrapped in bubble wrap in a padded room. LOL!

      May 14, 2012 at 18:23 | Report abuse |
    • Bosda Di'Chi

      Iodine is your friend.
      So is Hydrogen Peroxide.
      Go shake hands with your friend, Dave.

      May 15, 2012 at 05:30 | Report abuse |
  6. n30

    Just wondering if the only reason this is news is because she's a young blue-eyed blonde woman. What if she was 40, had bad teeth and bad hair? Would people care as much?

    May 14, 2012 at 17:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Coolio

      Of course not.

      May 14, 2012 at 18:58 | Report abuse |
    • JackWagon

      When this happened to my grandmother we just dug a hole and thru her in.

      May 14, 2012 at 19:46 | Report abuse |
  7. Dave

    Pour some four loko on it

    May 14, 2012 at 17:13 | Report abuse | Reply
    • hambone

      you just made my day

      May 14, 2012 at 17:20 | Report abuse |
    • monah

      What a waste!

      May 14, 2012 at 18:40 | Report abuse |
  8. Rizzo

    is that what we are calling Obama now ?

    May 14, 2012 at 17:21 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ME

      Shut it, threadjacker.

      May 14, 2012 at 19:02 | Report abuse |
  9. Leigh2

    Flesh Eating Bacteria, Rabies Virus, and Mad Cow Disease. I'd classify those as very malevolent afflictions. Kind of otherworldly in my book, but that's just me.

    May 14, 2012 at 17:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • hk

      i though only palin had all these

      May 14, 2012 at 23:15 | Report abuse |
  10. HowNowBrownCouch

    If this took place 10-20 years ago she probably would have just had a nasty cut and a nasty scar. It seems like over the last few years any water source in warmer parts of the country has become pretty scary. And yes, I believe if the victim wasn't a pretty young woman who's life was just beginning, this story would have received minimal coverage. No one at any age, and regardless of beauty, deserves to suffer from this. I pray this young lady doesn't have to lose any more limbs/fingers or any more than what she's already lost 😦

    May 14, 2012 at 18:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • A. N. Perspective

      "Fear of 'Flesh-Eating Disease' Spreads Faster Than Cases of It....Health experts stress virus is rare, not easily spread."

      From the LA Times, June 1994. In other words between 10-20 years ago.

      May 14, 2012 at 18:37 | Report abuse |
    • CW

      This bacteria has been around for millions of years. It isn't new like you describe.

      May 14, 2012 at 18:40 | Report abuse |
  11. fory06

    The problem is they should not have closed the wound in the first place. Should have used a wound vac.

    May 14, 2012 at 18:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • NGC5139

      @fory06 is spot on his/her comments. A year and a half ago I was hospitalized with necrotizing fascitis (thanks to MRSA) and had a series of operations over the next several months; I almost did not live to see 2011.

      The reason I am fully recovered now was because of these wound vacs.

      May 14, 2012 at 18:28 | Report abuse |
  12. Buddy

    If two necrotizing fasciitis organisms of the same sex wanted to marry, would Obama support and Romney oppose the union? Either way, we all know it's Obama's fault for allowing necrotizing fasciitis to flourish so well...

    May 14, 2012 at 18:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Dungy

    "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year there are about 10,000 U.S. cases of group A streptococcus, a collection of bacteria that includes necrotizing fasciitis. Approximately 20% of the cases of necrotizing fasciitis are fatal, according to the CDC. "
    This is kind of irresponsible reporting. Group A streptococcus is an extremely common organism, but only a small minority of infections ever become serious like this. The average Group A Strep infection is a sore throat for a few days, which would likely cure up without penicillin. We only need to give penicillin to avoid the small but very real risk of more serious problems.

    May 14, 2012 at 18:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Jesus

    Flesh eating bacteria that attacks you from the inside and slowly kills. Sounds like a really bad marriage.

    May 14, 2012 at 18:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • katrin

      hahahaha good one jesus 😛

      May 17, 2012 at 02:05 | Report abuse |
  15. dywlf

    The world of microbes is complex. The group A strep infection in your throat that goes away in a few days could destroy you quickly if allowed to enter an open wound. The same group A species may not express all or any of its many enzymes or toxins and may pass unnoticed. This particular case is disturbing because it does not mention prophylactic antibiotic administered. A traumatic wound received in fresh water should have had Aeromonas hydrophilia considered and approriate therapy given. Never, never, never underestimate the world of microbes. treat every wound as dangerous.

    May 14, 2012 at 19:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Concerned in Cleveland

    So long as the doctors can save my man bits and my brain,
    I'm good
    But if they can't keep the bits and the brain, please just let me go
    Please.

    May 14, 2012 at 19:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JackWagon

      Some of us are a little more particular and would at least need to have at least one hand or at least a knub for a prosthesis.

      May 14, 2012 at 19:53 | Report abuse |
  17. JackWagon

    Get accustomed to a lot more things like this as global warming gets worse. Plus, you are all eating all of the fish out of the oceans, lakes, and streams and those fish eat these flesh eating bacteria. In a few years you better not even get too near any water that isn't bottled or otherwise purified.

    May 14, 2012 at 19:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Antonia

      I was lucky enough to get a tour of the U.S.N.S. Comfort many years ago, and was imerssped with the size and scope of this floating hospital. It is massive and includes OR suites, ICU wards, dental operatories, and quarters for the crew to name only a few. I have been privileged to serve with the U.S. Army Medical Corp. They are true heroes: serving a country that sorely needs to repair its national pride. Thank you for posting this blog about Lt. Cooper's experiences, it is inspiring and makes me proud to be an American.

      September 13, 2012 at 23:20 | Report abuse |
  18. more2bits

    Wonder what would happen if you had a bloody nose and swam in an infected pond?

    Would you die in hours?

    May 14, 2012 at 19:58 | Report abuse | Reply
    • fritz

      As long as you aren't rummaging through the pond mud with your face like a catfish then I think you'd be ok with a bloody nose in the water.

      May 14, 2012 at 21:31 | Report abuse |
    • anon

      agree with Fritz

      May 15, 2012 at 11:58 | Report abuse |
  19. PumpNDump

    Why can't 1/2 the obese people in the US get the flesh eating virus?

    May 14, 2012 at 20:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. mac101

    "If necrotizing fasciitis is detected early, only skin or fat may need to be removed. But if the infection is detected later, amputation may be necessary to stop the spread of the bacteria."

    This is misleading – the biggest problem with NF is that is spreads so incredibly fast, there is almost no time to diagnose it before it has done significant damage. I have yet to hear of a true NF patient who only had skin and fat removed and didn't require amputation of muscle and bone.

    And the vast majority of strep A infections are minor, but if strep A begins to develop toxins it is a nasty, nasty infection. We still don't really understand what causes a garden-variety bacteria to go from bacteria to bacteria-producing toxins, but once any bacteria gets to the toxin stage, the fatality rate is quite high – think diphtheria toxin, botulism toxin, etc.

    It is my observation that infections that go to the toxin stage tend to be in younger and healthier patients – perhaps their immune systems are hyper-efficient? – but that is only anecdotal on my part, I have no concrete data to back that up.

    May 14, 2012 at 20:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • teri hatcher

      Here I am. I distinctly recall one of my surgeons (I had 5 in my second debridment) who said they have seen it move so quickly as they are cutting out the necrotizing facia they could see the damage growing faster than they could cut. I was threatened with the loss of my left foot, maybe my right leg and certainly my right arm. I kept them all, and when my reconstructive surgeon thought "this poor woman, they saved her arm but she'll never use it"she too was mistaken, I had a 9 day old baby I had stuff to do. I was not 'young' (35 at the time), the only compromise was I was 9 days post natal. Two months in the hospital, had to learn to walk again. Here's the real problem with NF, it presents just like the flu and is horribly misdiagnosed by docs who aren't familar with it or expect to see it and minutes count. I was lucky enough to have a doc rounding ICU first thing who wanted me tested, and a charge nurse who fought to have them open up my legs too while the doc in that night wanted to "watch" it.

      May 15, 2012 at 02:23 | Report abuse |
  21. Bugs

    Can anybody clarify something for me? I seem to remember reading that the loss of fingers is not the result of the bacteria but of drugs that are administered to restrict blood flow and prevent the spread of the infection. So basically, they intentionally cut off circulation to the extremities, which sometimes have to be amputated as a result. Is this correct, or is it actually the bacteria damaging the fingers?

    May 14, 2012 at 20:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • LastoftheZucchiniFlowers

      The drugs you refer to, inotropes or 'pressors', are often used in critical sepsis patients to perfuse the kidneys. These patients basically have NO VASCULAR RESISTANCE, drop their blood pressure and will die quickly if pressors are NOT given, often in large doses. Sometimes, the net effect of the pressors is that distal perfusion is compromised and amputations are frequently the result. That is what is likely happening with this poor girl. The pathogen is NOT eating her fingers and you are essentially correct. It's a terrible decision to make, but always done at the point of death in order to to save the patient's life.

      May 14, 2012 at 20:43 | Report abuse |
    • fritz

      That's a really good question. That never occurred to me. Thanks for the heads up.

      May 14, 2012 at 21:34 | Report abuse |
  22. Dan

    This article – and nearly every other article – doesn't mention that she had a compromised immune system after having being diagnosed with Lupus. Some articles have suggested that this was an additional risk factor, some have suggested that it really wasn't that important of a risk factor. Still, the quality of reporting on this issue has been horrendous.

    May 14, 2012 at 20:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. nibbz

    wow...ive been cut with fishhooks many times while fishing in southern US ponds ,rivers ect...so how come some people get this and some dont?

    May 14, 2012 at 21:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. SmartSurgeon

    Although I haven't seen initial injury ("deep gash") or the patient, basic rules = irrigate wound well, DRAIN(s) in deep wound, no primary closure (except possible steri-strips here and there allowing more drainage and "teaching" the flaps to eventually stay in the right direction as wound cleanly heals). Not a "guaranteed" success, but odds pretty good. Also, should be checked by MD closely post ER procedure. Having an autoimmune disease such as lupus adds to problem(s) = even simple wound healing. What I have just stated is NOT medical advice from me.

    May 14, 2012 at 22:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. san

    Thank you, Olaf Big. At least you appear to understand basic microbiology, not to mention Latin. Why can't Americans understand the difference between the singular and plural form of the word "bacterium," not to mention the difference between the causative agent and the disease itself? These so-called journalists should be fired.

    May 14, 2012 at 22:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Peg

    This victim has Lupus & is on steroids, which suppresses her immune system. We come up against bacteria capable of doing this kind of damage to us all the time – just waiting for an opportunity to get into our bodies thru a cut or deep scratch. A healthy immune system is what keeps most of us safe.

    May 14, 2012 at 22:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Alfonds

    What if she caught that bacteria in the hospital itself?

    May 14, 2012 at 23:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. hk

    meanwhile i pooped

    May 14, 2012 at 23:11 | Report abuse | Reply
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      And we're *all* so *very* proud of you. {ROLLEYES}

      May 15, 2012 at 05:36 | Report abuse |
  29. Miguel

    Wow, i didn't know that these horrible kinds of diseases or flesh eating bacteria existed. How horrible. I pray for that 24 yr old woman.

    May 15, 2012 at 05:03 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.