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Girl’s Rare Flesh-Eating Disease Caused by Common Bacteria

WSB/ABC News(NEW YORK) -- The rare flesh-eating disease that claimed a Georgia woman's leg and has her fighting for her life was caused by a common bacterium that thrives in warm climates and fresh water.

Aimee Copeland, a 24-year-old master's student at the University of West Georgia, has necrotizing fasciitis caused by Aeromonas hydrophila, a bacteria usually linked to intestinal disease.

"This bacteria is a common cause of diarrheal illness," said Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., and president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. "For it to cause a deep wound infection that dissolves tissue, that's not common."

Copeland was riding a homemade zip line near the Little Tallapoosa River on May 1 when the line snapped, slashing open her left calf. Doctors at Tanner Medical Center in Carrollton, Ga., cleaned the gash and closed it with 22 staples, but Copeland returned to the hospital the next day complaining of severe pain.

"The symptom that should ring alarm bells is serious, unremitting pain," said Schaffner, describing how the bacteria can, under rare circumstances, burrow deep into a wound and dissolve muscle and other tissue.

Doctors sent Copeland home with a prescription for painkillers, according to her Father, Andy, but the pain persisted. Copeland returned to the hospital the following day and was released again, this time with antibiotics. On Friday -- three full days after the zip line accident -- Copeland was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis and her left leg was amputated at the hip.

The two main treatments for necrotizing fasciitis disease are antibiotics and surgery to remove the infected tissue, Schaffner said, stressing that bacteria left behind can cause a deadly blood infection.

"You have to look at the wound and think, 'This is as far as the infection has gone; now I have to cut even further,'" he said.

After her leg was amputated, Copeland was flown to Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Ga., where doctors removed parts of her abdomen. She is in critical condition.

Copeland's prognosis is unknown, but mortality rates for Aeromonas-related necrotizing fasciitis are upward of 60 percent, according to a 2010 report published in the journal Clinical Microbiology Reviews.

Nearly 70 percent of Aeromonas wound infections stem from recreational occupational injuries in sporting activities, such as swimming or fishing, according to the 2010 report.

To reduce the risk of necrotizing fasciitis, all wounds big and small should be immediately cleaned, treated with antimicrobial ointment and covered with sterile bandages, according to the National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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