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Resident recovering from form of flesh-eating disease

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A local resident diagnosed with a flesh-eating disease continues to recuperate in Kenora after undergoing surgery to remove the contaminated flesh.

The family has assured all is well, with the patient now on the full road to recovery after two surgeries last week. The person is expected to return home soon.

Rumours of loss of limbs are just that--rumours, a family member stressed.

Dr. Pete Sarsfield, chief medical officer with the Northwestern Health Unit, also stressed yesterday was not suffering from “the” flesh-eating disease, necrotizing fasciitis, a rare illness that causes extensive tissue destruction by spreading along the layers of tissue that surround the muscle (the fascia).

Instead, this case involved what was referred to as “synergistic necrotizing fasciitis,” or a rotting of the tissue. For some unknown reason, parts of the person’s organs were not able to live in the system, Dr. Sarsfield explained.

“It’s very different from necrotizing fasciitis. The only thing that will change this is if [the Group A streptococcus bacteria] grew in the laboratory,” he noted.

If that happened, Dr. Sarsfield said, this would be necrotizing fasciitis. But he added that was unlikely at this stage.

There have been instances of necrotizing fasciitis in the area, with four cases reported in the Kenora and Rainy River Districts last year.

“In 1997, there were two cases that met the criteria in our catchment area,” said Ken Allan, team leader for communicable disease control with the Northwestern Health Unit here.

Another two cases were reported on federal First Nations land within that same geographic area, he added.

Although necrotizing fasciitis is fatal in 30 percent of the patients who contract it, Allan noted none of the four cases here resulted in death.

A 1996 study by Health Canada showed three to five people in a million get it from the Group A streptococcus bacteria.

It can be caused by a number of different bacteria, including “Group A” Streptococcus, a common bacteria which causes infections in children and young adults.

“Usually people who have Group A strep just have a sore throat,” Allan said.

About 15 percent of school-age children may carry Group A strep in their throat and have no symptoms, said Health Canada. But the same bacteria can cause pneumonia, scarlet fever, impetigo, and rheumatic fever.

In rare cases, the strep spreads and starts to eat into the flesh. But why it spreads in some people and not others is still unknown.

“For some strange reason, some of these bacteria just really like a specific host,” Allan noted, adding no one knew what the characteristics were that caused the disease. “Unfortunately, it’s like a lightning strike.”

In fact, in cases where a serious disease develops from the strep, a sore throat is unusual.

While Group A streptococcus is passed from person to person--normally through close personal contact such as kissing or sharing cutlery--necrotizing fasciitis is not. People can catch the bacteria, not the disease, Allan stressed.

Between 90-150 cases are reported across Canada each year.

Treatment usually involves removing the infected tissue (including amputation if necessary, as was the case with Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard), and giving antibiotics.

The disease was first described during the 18th century in France. Doctors noted it occurred sporadically throughout the 1800 and 1900s but was usually restricted to military hospitals, especially in times of war.

While the disease appeared to decrease in frequency during the 1940s, it re-emerged around the world in the 1980s.

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