Flesh-eating disease is the medical equivalent of being struck by lightning: it’s extremely rare and very tragic.
And the fact that it moves at breakneck speed, capable of killing a healthy person in as little as 12 hours, makes it an especially frightening and intriguing disease.
“You don’t have the luxury of waiting around a few days to find out what’s going on,” says Dr. Michael Gardam, an infectious disease specialist at University Health Network in Toronto. “You’ve got to jump on it right away.”
The tricky thing about this bacterial infection is that typical symptoms include skin infection and flu-like aches and pains, so some patients and even doctors may not recognize what they’re dealing with until it’s too late.
The disease recently sparked headlines when a Mississauga woman, Debbie Sebesta, died from it last Wednesday. Three days earlier, the otherwise healthy woman was complaining of a bruise and pain in her leg. Within hours, flu-like symptoms such as chills and vomiting had set in and were worsening by the minute.
After being rushed to hospital, Sebesta underwent surgery to remove large part of her leg, which was infected with necrotizing fasciitis, often called flesh-eating disease because it kills muscle and skin as it spreads through the tissue.
Cases such as Sebesta’s are “the tip of the iceberg,” says Dr. Neil Rau, an infectious diseases specialist with a private practice in Oakville, who uses the analogy of being struck by lightning to highlight their rarity.
A few years ago, one of his patients cut her index finger while peeling an apple and became infected. Days later, the infection spread up her arm, to the armpit and across the chest. She was operated on, but later succumbed to the disease.
Such tragedies are rare, says Rau, noting that even in severe cases of the disease, most people don’t die. Such was the case in the winter of 1994 when Lucien Bouchard, then-leader of the Bloc Québécois, was forced to have his leg amputated because of the illness.
“For every terrible case we hear about, there are millions of people who have no symptoms or only mild symptoms,” says Rau.
According to Health Canada, there are between 90 and 200 cases of necrotizing fasciitis each year, about 20 to 30 per cent of which are fatal.
Infection is caused by different strains of bacteria, including group A streptococcus (GAS), a bacterium often found in the throat and on the skin of healthy people. Most people who carry GAS have no symptoms of illness and most infections are relatively mild illnesses, such as strep throat.
Infection often develops when bacteria enters the body, usually through a minor cut or scrape. In rare cases, that infection will spread and release harmful toxins.
Among the telltale signs that a person may have the disease is a small cut that may not look so bad but is causing immense pain, a skin infection that is spreading and flu-like symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhea and chills.
One of the cardinal features of flesh-eating disease, says Gardam is that “the pain is more than you’d expect from what you’re looking at.”
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