Despite what you may have read, experts insist there's no flesh-eating bacteria outbreak in the United States. But if recent high-profile cases of necrotizing fasciitis have shed light on the disease, which affects about 15,000 people each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, then more good than harm has been done, they say.
Over the past several weeks, the media--including U.S. News--have reported on the case of Aimee Copeland, a 24-year-old student in Georgia who lost her leg and both hands to the rapidly-progressing disease, which is caused by several types of bacteria, including several strains of strep. But Copeland's experience with the disease isn't anything new to people who are familiar with treating it. Many people infected have lasting effects, including amputations and lasting scars.
"We identify with this beautiful young girl Aimee, but before this, it hasn't been sexy for the media. It hasn't been a topic of interest. My heart is with this poor young girl, but I get calls and E-mails every day from people who are experiencing this," says Jacqueline Roemmele, director of the National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation and a survivor of the disease. "This is nonstop. It's every day."
Roemmele says people hear the words "flesh eating" and let their imaginations run wild, and she can understand the response. "When people see the images of what it does to you, you can't help but feel frightened," she says.
But in fact, necrotizing fasciitis isn't "flesh-eating" at all, according to Pascal James Imperato, dean of the SUNY Downstate Medical Center.
"There's sort of a misunderstanding among the general public that this is a flesh-eating bacteria. I think when they hear the term it's quite frightening, although from scientific perspective it's not accurate. But it's now ingrained in the popular vocabulary," he says. "The destruction of tissue is due to the toxins that are released by the bacteria."
Since Copeland's case came to light earlier this month, at least three other victims nationwide have been identified. But with more than 40 new victims diagnosed each day, Roemmele says she wishes it didn't take such a high-profile case for the disease's effects to get national attention.
According to Imperato, the vast majority of victims affected by the disease already have compromised immune systems. If caught early, antibiotics can stop the disease before much damage is done.
"It's a relatively rare disease, but at 10,000-15,000 cases a year, it's not unknown," he says. "One has to look at the mortality of this infection, and it's a relatively low 5-7 percent, although it's clearly tragic for the individual and the families."
The media aren't the only ones trying to cash in—since Copeland's case became public, Roemmele says her E-mail inbox and phone have been inundated with calls from doctors claiming to have new treatments for the disease, some more dubious than others.
"There have been about a dozen doctors who have E-mailed me begging me to try their cure or treatment … even if it's not tried or true," she says. "Some are profoundly passionate and highly-educated physicians trying to cure something so horrific … but the best treatment really comes down to broad-spectrum antibiotics."
Even though there's not likely to be a larger outbreak of the disease, and most people who contract the disease end up being OK, anyone who has a cut that seems to expand after a few hours is best off seeing their doctor, Imperato says.
"It's very difficult to change people's perception of the disease," he says. "Nonetheless, it's not something to be taken lightly."
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org