Georgia grad student Aimee Copeland’s horrific experience with flesh-eating bacteria that led to a leg amputation may have left people worried about getting infected themselves. But these types of infections aren’t common, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with fewer than 1,000 cases a year in the United States.
Also known as necrotizing fasciitis, the aggressive bacteria that cause it — such as Group A Streptococcus, which killed Muppets creator Jim Henson — enter the body through an open wound. The particular bacteria — Aeromonas hydrophila — that Copeland was infected with is even more rare. That’s despite the high prevalence of the bacteria in lakes and streams with brackish water. While the bacteria can cause diarrhea if swallowed, it rarely gets the chance to burrow unchecked through the human body. “I could go to the same water source where [Copeland] acquired the infection, bathe in it, dunk my head in the water and nothing would happen to me,” said infectious disease specialist Dr. William Schaffner at Vanderbuilt University Medical Center. “This is not a bug that will get into the body through the skin; it has to be inoculated deep into tissues.” The best advice he can offer? Clean superficial wounds with soap, water, and an antibacterial cream — and cover them until they heal.