Bacteria that caused a "flesh-eating disease" in a Bryan County man last week are found naturally in the environment and are not specifically caused or affected by pollution, officials said.
Joseph Allen contracted necrotizing fasciitis after entering the Ogeechee River on July 7 and is in St. Joseph's Candler Hospital in Savannah undergoing treatment.
Roger Naylor, the emergency preparedness coordinator for the Southeast Health District, and Ogeechee Riverkeeper Emily Markesteyn said Wednesday that the disease happens when people with wounds or compromised immune systems encounter certain bacteria, often found in fresh and saltwater.
"The bacteria that can lead to necrotizing fasciitis are naturally found in bodies of water, such as lakes, ponds and rivers," Naylor said. "People with open wounds on their bodies should take care of the wound and avoid being in the water because the bacteria can enter the body through the open wounds."
The most common bacteria that cause necrotizing fasciitis, known as the "flesh-eating bacteria" disease, are "found in our environment and are ever-present," Markesteyn said. "Nobody can say it is more prevalent at any time or place."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, the most common bacteria causing the disease are group A streptococcus , Klebsiella, Clostridium, E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Aeromonas hydrophila
Information from the website states that people who are healthy, with strong immune systems, and who practice good hygiene and proper wound care, have a slim chance of contracting the disease. Necrotizing fasciitis is called "flesh eating" because of toxins made by these bacteria that destroy infected tissue.
People with wounds, even an insect bite or scrape, and who have compromised immune systems because of conditions such as diabetes, cancer or other illnesses, are most susceptible.
The CDC recommends keeping wounds covered with clean, dry bandages until healed, and to avoid entering the water.
According to www.webmd.com, about 1 in 4 people who get this infection die from it. The site warns against coming in contact with ocean water, raw saltwater fish or raw oysters, including injuries from handling sea animals such as crabs. The bacteria can enter the body even through a muscle strain or bruise, or any break in the skin.
Symptoms often start soon after an injury, with severe pain, redness or discoloration and swelling, as well as nausea and fever, according to the site. The pain can be much worse than one would think by the wound's appearance.
Allen, whose family could not be reached for comment Wednesday, had boat trouble while fishing in the Ogeechee River near Dasher's Landing. When he exited the water, he became ill, according to media reports.
Over the past few years, the Ogeechee River has been under scrutiny after a May 2011 fish kill that left tens of thousands of dead fish along 70 miles of river downstream from King America, a textiles plant on the river that was found to be dumping wastewater illegally.
Since then, the Environmental Protection Division and Ogeechee Riverkeeper organization have overseen changes in the plant's wastewater elimination process, although the fish kill was never directly linked to river pollution. The fish died from columnaris, a bacterial disease caused by environmental stress, EPD reports stated.
Markesteyn said the Ogeechee River is monitored on a regular basis and no violations or high chemical readings have been found recently.
"You have to be careful when recreating outdoors — not just in the water," she said. "Wear shoes in the river, avoid exposing injuries, and if you are injured in the water, seek medical attention."
According to media reports, Allen remains in critical condition while undergoing treatment for the disease. His family told media sources that his wound was initially the size of a postage stamp, but grew much larger and more painful after he went into the water.
Naylor said necrotizing fasciitis is an "infection of the subcutaneous soft tissues, particularly the fascia, and is a rapidly progressive disease, which destroys muscles, fat and skin tissue."
The CDC estimates that only about 1 in every 400,000 people are diagnosed with this infection each year in the United States, he said.
Group A Streptococcus is considered the most common cause of necrotizing fasciitis, and there are approximately 650 to 800 cases of necrotizing fasciitis caused by group A strep each year in the U.S., he said.
Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.