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Tatum Parker: Bacteria fears out of reality with danger

Updated: November 18, 2012 7:05AM



It seems we are constantly bombarded with sensational headlines and stories in the news about deadly, waterborne pathogens that will bring about the downfall of humanity.

Stories with headlines like “Now even tap water isn’t safe!” or “Brain-eating amoeba fatal in 99 percent of cases” are scary topics for the general public to digest.

Are these new mutant super bugs? Have they always been here, lurking, waiting? How can we prevent ourselves from turning into brain-dead zombies if these things are so commonplace?

First, things have been blown out of proportion. While any death is tragic, it’s important to keep things in perspective. While many of these pathogens are common, infections are very rare.

Naegleria fowleri is the name of the brain-eating amoeba, which was reportedly “found in tap water” and responsible for killing two people in Louisiana this year. One thing that was not made clear was that the amoeba was found in the pipes and/or hot water heater of the homes, not the drinking water supply.

This amoeba is found naturally in freshwater lakes and rivers, hot springs and in the soil in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says there have been 32 reported infections in the U.S. from 2002 to 2011.

By comparison, in a 10-year period of time there were more than 36,000 drowning deaths in the U.S.

If you really want to reduce your risk of infection from this bug, limit the amount of water going up your nose. When swimming in warm waters, always use a nose clamp, avoid putting your head underwater and try to avoid activities in freshwater during periods of high water temperature and a low water level.

It’s also vitally important to use precautionary measures when rinsing your sinuses. Use sterile water by either boiling the water for at least one minute and allowing it to cool before use, using water filters with an absolute pore size of 1 micron or smaller or purchasing water with labels specifying that it contains distilled or sterile water. After the irrigation device has been used, it should be rinsed with sterile water and allowed to air-dry completely.

As for flesh-eating bacteria, or necrotizing fasciitis, these are a common group of bacteria, Group A strep (GAS). Most of the bacteria in this group are benign, with many people carrying them in their throats and on their skin with no symptoms or illness. One of the most severe but least common forms of invasive GAS is necrotizing fasciitis.

The CDC reports that there are about 10,500 cases of invasive GAS each year in the United States, ranging from lesser maladies such as strep throat and impetigo to serious ones such as streptococcal toxic shock syndrome and necrotizing fasciitis. These cases result in approximately 1,400 deaths annually, with necrotizing fasciitis comprising about 7 percent of the invasive cases.

Are cases of flesh-eating bacteria and its mortality rate increasing? No. A study of cases at children’s hospitals across the country shows a steady rate from 1997 to 2006.

Who is at risk? In adults, necrotizing fasciitis often occurs in people who have diabetes or a compromised immune system, but most children who develop the infection are otherwise healthy.

The odds for an infected person improve when conditions are recognized early. A key symptom of this infection is pain is out of proportion based on how the injury looks. Other symptoms include rapid swelling, skin being very tense and firm, sudden lethargy and often a high fever rapidly after injury.

These are not new, terrifying organisms designed to destroy humanity. They have been around, at relatively the same rates, for a long time.

We have gotten better at reporting and sensationalizing them, and now we have to get better at educating the public about them.

Tatiana C. Tatum Parker is an assistant professor of biological sciences and chair of the Pre-Health Professional Committee at St. Xavier University in Chicago.



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