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Experts: Flesh-eating bacteria rarely leads to serious illness
Organism common in water, invades through wounds
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Donald James Whitcomb, 5, swims Friday along near the shoreline of Lake Lanier at Clarks Bridge Park while visiting the beach with Gavin, right, and Ryan Burnett and family.

Flesh-eating bacteria may sound like a bad horror movie, but the case of a Gwinnett County woman fighting such an infection has many concerned about a threat that may be lurking in Northeast Georgia’s lakes and rivers.

Aimee Copeland, a 24-year-old graduate student, is fighting the bacteria after an accident on a homemade zip line along the Little Tallapoosa River that caused a gash in her leg, where the bacteria took hold.

Medical experts say the bacteria itself is common, found in water but also often found on our skin. The condition, called necrotizing fasciitis, is rare.

Kristen Nordlund, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control, said the group A strep involved in Copeland’s case can be on your body without any harmful effects. Other bacteria can cause the infection, but group A strep is the most common.

“You can have it on you or in your body and not get sick,” she said. “Sometimes it can invade, though, causing respiratory infections (strep throat) or more severe invasive infections (like necrotizing fasciitis).

Sandy Bozarth, infection control practitioner at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, has seen only one case in her 10 years with the hospital about five years ago.

Bozarth said that when the bacteria gets under the skin through an open wound like Copeland’s, it kills the tissue around it. Doctors can treat with antibiotics, but often the condition requires surgery to stop the progression or remove the dead tissue.

Her advice for those with concerns is to always watch wounds carefully, keeping them clean and covered.

“And it if it looks like it is at all becoming infected, seek medical treatment,” she said. “That’s the best advice I can give.”

Staying out of the water wasn’t on her list, though.

That’s good news for Christina Warren, who was at the lake Thursday with her two children, Gavin and Ryan Burnett.

But the Lula woman, who said she spends most every day at the lake during the summer, said she wasn’t too concerned anyway.

“It’s not like there’s a ton of people that we’ve heard about,” she said. “It kind of seems to me like it was a chance thing that happened with (Copeland’s case).”

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