Media Exaggerate Epidemic of Flesh-Eating Bacteria

By Lois Baker

Release Date: June 14, 1994 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Media reports of an epidemic of necrotizing fasciitis caused by a flesh-eating bacteria are premature and may be causing unnecessary public angst, according to a nationally recognized expert in infectious diseases who is a professor of medicine and associate professor of microbiology at the University at Buffalo.

"This situation has been blown way out of proportion," says Thomas R. Beam, Jr., M.D., a consultant to the FDA and editor of the national journal Infections in Medicine. Beam also is associate chief of staff for education at the Buffalo VA Medical Center.

"There are between 500 and 1,500 cases of this disease reported every single year. But the media fascination with these cases will make it seem like there are many more."

Necrotizing fasciitis is caused by Group A streptococcal bacteria. About one-quarter of the population carries the strain in their throats or on the skin at any one time and experience no adverse symptoms, Beam says. The bacteria is not the same strain that causes strep throat.

"People who get necrotizing fasciitis are just unlucky," Beam says. "They happen to be harboring the bacteria, sustain an injury and become infected. "

While the disease is not running rampant, it is an extremely dangerous condition, and people who see major changes in a cut or wound should get immediate medical attention, Beam says.

He noted that a Ypsilanti, Mich., man, whose death from the disease after scraping his knee in a bicycle accident has been reported widely in the news media, waited six or seven days before going to a doctor for treatment.

"If you have some sort of trauma and the surrounding inflammation spreads rapidly within an hour, you should get immediate attention," Beam says.

Slight redness and swelling in the area immediately surrounding a cut or wound is part of the normal healing process, however, and shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign that the deadly bacteria are at work.