Australian woman becomes world's first person to survive deadly flesh-eating bacteria
An Australian woman has become the world's first documented person to survive a pathogen which usually causes the deadly “blackleg” disease in sheep and cattle.
The doctors treating the woman published the unique case this week in the Medical Journal of Australia which gave details of the successful treatment of the pathogen after the only two similar cases in humans to have ever occurred – one in Japan and the other in the United States – had turned fatal.
The lead author of the article Dr Ria Ko was working as an infectious diseases advanced trainee at Sydney's Prince of Wales Hospital when the 48-year-old woman was admitted last year with multi-organ failure, which included kidneys and liver, and very low blood pressure.
The hospital immediately admitted the woman to intensive care. She had a fever, diarrhoea, abdominal pain and showed signs of shock.
After performing blood culture testing, Ko discovered that a bacterium in the blood of a patient that she had never heard of before and was called Clostridium chauvoei was the cause of the infection.
After looking into the exposure history of the patient, Ko said, “We thought that the most likely point of entry for this bug would be from contaminated soil, with Clostridium chauvoei entering her bloodstream through these scratches.”
She added that although very little was mentioned about how to treat humans infected with the bacteria, in the veterinary world it was known to be the leading cause of blackleg in cattle.
Bacteria enters into bloodstream and turns “flesh-eating”
She said that in animals when infected soil gets into the bloodstream through cuts, it quickly leads to myonecrosis, the death of the muscle in the legs.
“Sheep and cattle can’t complain or communicate they have this pain so we read in the literature that the most common presenting symptom of blackleg is death, because farmers find this animal dead and then find out they have blackleg,” Ko said.
She stated that in the woman, the pathogen had produced toxins which cause necrotising enterocolitis and because of this sections of the bowel tissue die and can be called “flesh-eating”.
Cattle veterinary specialist at the University of Melbourne Prof David Beggs said, “What happens is typically the young calves look a bit lame and when you feel the leg where they’re lame, it feels like there’s a bubble wrap in there because the bacteria eat away at the flesh and cause gas to be produced.”
“And the dead tissue that’s been macerated by the bacteria gets into the bloodstream and causes blood poisoning. So you end up firstly with gangrene, which is just the tissue dying, and the gas getting there and then, secondly, with blood poisoning. Same in people,” he added.