Necrotizing Fasciitis: The Flesh-Eating Disease One Georgia Grad Student Is Fighting

Aimee Copeland is fighting a rare flesh-eating bacteria. What exactly is necrotizing fasciitis?

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Aimee Copeland

For about two weeks now, 24-year-old Aimee Copeland has battled a rare flesh-eating bacteria she contracted after cutting herself when she fell from a homemade zipline. The disease claimed her left leg and will likely take her fingers as well, but her family reports she is showing signs of recovery.

Although necrotizing fasciitis is rare, it’s a very serious disease. Within a short period of time, it can destroy skin, fat and tissue surrounding muscles. According to WebMD, about 1 in 4 people die from the infection, regardless of how healthy they are when they contract it.

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Necrotizing fasciitis is caused by several kinds of bacteria, including some of the same bacteria that causes strep throat. The bacteria that infected Copeland is called Aeromonas hydrophila and can be found found in warm, brackish waters. Aeromonas hydrophila is typically contracted through swallowing, which results in nausea, but it can also infect open wounds, as in Copeland’s case.

Copeland, a psychology graduate student at the University of West Georgia, was kayaking with friends when she tried a homemade zipline that snapped, causing a large gash in her left calf. She was immediately sent to the hospital where doctors closed her wound with 22 staples. A few days later, Copeland’s friend returned her to the hospital after she reported continued pain. She was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis and airlifted to JMS Burn Center in Augusta, Georgia where doctors amputated her left leg. Following the surgery, Copeland went into cardiac arrest, but was resuscitated, CNN affiliate WGCL reported.

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“When [Aeromonas hydrophila] gets into those deeper tissues, it has a remarkable ability to destroy the tissues that surround it in sort of this hunt for nutrition. When it does that, those tissues die, and you see the inflammation and the swelling and the destruction that can be very difficult to control,” Dr. Buddy Creech, an assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, told CNN. Creech says Copeland’s case was more uncommon since she was not affected by swallowing, but her wound got “infected and the infection (ran) wild.”

Doctors were initially unsure Copeland would survive the night after her surgery, but she continues to show slow recovery signs. On Saturday, the University of West Georgia psychology department (where Copeland is a student) posted on their blog:

Aimee will suffer the loss of her fingers, however physicians have hope of bringing life back to the palms of her hands, which could allow her the muscle control to use helpful prosthetics. They are awaiting a safe time before embarking on surgery for this.

Read more about necrotizing fasciitis symptoms and treatment from the National Institutes of Health.

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