Flesh eating bacteria ranks very highly on my list of irrational childhood fears. It’s below my fear of the sun suddenly going dark, but above killer bees, fire ants, lava, and swallowing sharp metal things.
However, a new study shows that, with the rising global temperature, cases flesh eating disease will be increasing and, perhaps, spreading into countries in which it had never before been an issue. Consequently, this particular fear has been upgraded from “irrational,” to “mostly irrational.”
With horribly painful, potentially fatal, and really gross-looking infections now imminent for all of us, I thought it would be worthwhile to swing the spotlight of attention over to…
It turns out that what we call “flesh eating disease” can be caused any one of several different infections. Necrotizing fasciitis (flesh eating bacteria) can refer to Vibrio vulnificus, Clostridium perfringens, or Bacteroides fragilis, but most often Group A streptococcus is the culprit. It starts at the site of a cut or bruise, and is very painful but generally has no visible symptoms early on. If the infection is shallow, swelling, redness, and heat will develop shortly, sometimes accompanied by diarrhea and vomiting. Skin color will then darken, and blisters will develop. This is followed by the death of the affected subcutaneous tissues. In severe cases this all can happen within several hours, and in such instances the death rate is about 30%.
The bacteria don’t actually eat your flesh, which is a relief. Instead, they release toxins that cause your body to destroy itself (T-cells, cytokines, over-stimulated macrophages, blah blah blah).
The condition is treated by antibiotics, amputation of affected organs, and the removal of necrotic tissue. Also, by denial.
The specific variety of flesh eating disease that this study focuses on is slightly different.
It’s actually caused by a protozoan parasite and is transmitted by the bites of sand flies. It’s called “leishmaniasis.” Leishmaniasis, unlike necrotizing fasciitis, often won’t exhibit symptoms until weeks or months after infection. Raised, red lesions appear, and then burst. In cases where the lesions are diffuse, the condition can appear like leprosy. Mucous membranes can also be infected, resulting in the destruction of the nose and lips. The infection can be fatal if the parasite spreads to vital organs.
The leishmaniasis carrying sand flies are usually found only in tropical climates, but as global temperatures rise, the flies will be able to survive in countries that were never before suitable for them. Travel and tourism will also facilitate the spread of the parasite.
The disease is found in the Middle East, South Asia, North Africa, and Central and South America, and has even been reported in southern Texas and southern Europe. Soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq have been affected by the disease as well, with over 650 cases of the “Baghdad Boil” being reported since the invasion in 2003.
The moral here? It’s that flesh eating disease is exactly as gross as you imagined. And that you should wear plenty of insect repellent when sand flies are around.