Flesh-Eating Bacteria Explained
The struggle to save 24-year-old Aimee Copeland from necrotizing fasciitis has brought to life how devastating the disease can be.
Michael Marin Self-Poisons in Courtroom
July 3, 2012 --
Shortly after hearing a guilty verdict while on trial for setting fire to his Phoenix mansion in an effort to get out of his mortgage, former Wall Street trader Michael Marin shocked the courtroom by collapsing and dying in a suspected suicide. Video of Marin suggests he swallowed what media reports are speculating to be a poison pill. Within minutes of swallowing the pill, Marin goes into convulsions and later he's pronounced dead. Whatever Marin succumbed to needed little time to take full effect if the video of the courtroom drama does in fact detail the 53-year-old swallowing the poison that killed him. In this slideshow, take a look at some of the most dangerous poisons known to man.
Amatoxins The mushroom in this photo may not seem as terrifying as its nickname would imply. But a single ounce of this "death cap," which unfortunately can resemble its more edible cousins, is enough to kill a human being. Amatoxins, the poison found in this fungus, is what's behind this mushroom's deadly kick. They can severely damage liver and kidneys, and lead to coma, organ failure and more.
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Anthrax Anthrax was a bacteria that was all but off the radar thanks to decades of vaccination and sterilization programs aimed at containing infection rates. Then in 2001, anthrax became headline news when a series of attacks through the United States Postal Service killed five and sickened 17, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Anthrax spores can spread through the air and can infect a person or animal by coming into contact with a wound on the skin, by being inhaled by the host, or by being ingested in the form of tainted meat. Symptoms of anthrax infection depend on the method of exposure, but typically resemble the common flu. Inhaling anthrax is the most dangerous means of exposure and can be fatal up to 90 percent of the time.
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Botulinum Given that there are many poisons that can be lethal in small doses, pinning down the most dangerous can be considered a somewhat objective exercise. But toxicology experts all seem to agree that botulinum toxin, the same stuff that's used in Botox injections to clear up wrinkles, takes the cake. Botulinum, which causes botulism as the name implies, can cause respiratory failure, neurological damage and more at its worst. The bacteria can enter the body through open wounds or by being ingested in food.
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Cyanide If there's one toxin that has almost become a synonym for poison, it's cyanide. Cyanide can come in the form of a crystal or colorless gas that's been described as having a "bitter almond" smell, according to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention. Cyanide also happens to be everywhere: It's naturally occurring in some foods and plants. It's in cigarettes. Cyanide is used to manufacture plastics, develop photographs, remove gold from ore, and of course kill unwanted insects, among other applications. Cyanide exposure can come from inhalation, ingestion or even touch. Poisoning from cyanide can lead to convulsions, respiratory failure and death in extreme cases.
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Mercury As described by the National Institutes of Health, there are three forms of mercury that can be potentially deadly: elemental mercury, inorganic mercury and organic mercury. Elemental mercury, which is what you find in glass thermometers, older dental fillings and florescent light bulbs, is harmless to the touch, but can be fatal if inhaled. Even if the person exposed survives, poisoning can still lead to long-term or even permanent lung and brain damage. Inorganic mercury, which is used to make batteries, can be deadly when ingested, and lead to kidney damage and worse. Organic mercury, found in fish, can be inhaled or ingested, and usually only affects those exposed over the long term, except in rare cases. Symptoms can range from memory loss to blindness to seizures and more.
Ricin Derived from castor beans, ricin is a naturally occurring poison, and humans can be exposed to it in the air, food or water, according to the CDC. Although the symptoms can vary depending on the method of exposure, ricin works by preventing cells from creating proteins they need to survive. Eventually, these cells die off, which can lead to organ failure.
Sarin Unlike all of the other entries on this list so far, Sarin is a synthetic toxin manufactured as a nerve agent. As explained by the CDC, sarin was originally developed as a pesticide, but this odorless, clear gas quickly became a tool for chemical warfare. Sarin can be inhaled or exposure can come through contact with the eyes or skin. The most recent use of sarin gas was in a series of terrorist attacks in 1994 and 1995 in Matsumoto and Tokyo, Japan, respectively, causing 20 deaths and injuring some 1,600 others. Symptoms from sarin gas exposure include blurred vision, convulsions, respiratory failure and more.
Strychnine Derived from the Strychnos nux-vomica tree native to India and southeast Asia, pure strychnine comes in the form of a white, bitter powder that can be deadly when inhaled, injected or ingested. Although commonly used as a pesticide, it has also surfaced in illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine, according to the CDC. Strychnine poisoning can lead to muscle spasms, respiratory failure and even brain death within 30 minutes of exposure.
Tetrodotoxin Pufferfish may not seem like particularly dastardly animals based on their appearance alone, but they harbor one of the most deadly poisons known to man. Found in the skin, liver, intestines and other organs of the pufferfish, tetrodotoxin can cause paralysis, convulsions, mental impairment and more to anyone who eats this fish, at least when it's been served improperly. Although only a handful of cases are ever reported in the United States, there are as many as 200 cases annually of tetrodotoxin poisoning in Japan, with a 50 percent mortality rate, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
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- A 24 year-old contracted a rare case of necrotizing fasciitis after a zip line accident in Georgia on May 1.
- Doctors amputated most of Aimee Copeland's left leg and hands.
- Aeromonas hydrophila can be found in freshwater and brackish water environments, but is a rare way of contracting necrotizing fasciitis.
Aimee Copeland, a 24-year-old University of West Georgia graduate student, is breathing on her own today. It's a huge milestone in her continuing battle against a rare infection -- necrotizing fasciitis.
Copeland contracted the rare form of flesh-eating bacteria after a zip line accident over a river in Georgia on May 1.
The germs that cause flesh-eating disease are common in warm and brackish waters like ponds, lakes and streams and rivers like the one that Copeland fell into when her zip line broke. The bacteria are not a threat to most people.
Swimmers sometimes come into contact with aeromonas hydrophila -- the type of bacteria Copeland is fighting.
If swallowed, your immune system will attempt to fight off gastrointestinal infections. You may experience some diarrhea -- but in most cases, says Dr. William Schaffner, president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, you're perfectly fine after towelling off.
If you have an open wound, like Copeland's, the bacteria can enter the body and quickly reproduce. While the bacteria don't actually eat flesh, they attack skin and tissue by giving off toxins.
"It requires the perfect storm of circumstances," Schaffner. "It's unlikely to happen. Which is also scientists' way of saying we don't really know."
When someone is infected, the bacteria spreads quickly by hiding from the body's immune system, making it difficult to diagnose. It's one of the fastest spreading infections known, according to The National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation.
Treatment starts with antibiotics, and usually involves removal of the infected areas as well. In Copeland's case, her hands were endangering her recovery, her father wrote on Facebook: "As always, my decision was simple. Do whatever it takes to give us the best chance to save Aimee's life." The bacteria live in areas devoid of oxygen, so exposing the wounds to oxygen through surgery helps prevent their spread. But because the infection moves so fast, and because the bacteria thrive deep within the tissue, undetected, surgeons often have to go back in a second or third time, Schaffner says.
The struggle to save 24-year-old Aimee Copeland from necrotizing fasciitis has brought to life how devastating the disease can be.AimeeCopeland.com
In the most severe cases, organs can go into systemic shock, accompanied by respiratory and/or heart failure.
Jacqueline Roemmele, executive director of The National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation and NF survivor, says Copeland's case is typical in terms of diagnosis and treatment.
"It's pretty typical, and tragic," Roemmele said. "It's lightening fast, and drastic steps have to be taken quickly."
Roemmele, who calls herself the "grandma of flesh-eating disease" because she contracted the bacteria 18 years ago, says the most important thing to watch out for is pain out of proportion to the injury.
"If you have a tiny cut on your leg, and 5-6 hours later your entire leg is killing you, and you have a fever, and your leg is turning red and swelling, don't wait," she says. "Get to a doctor."
Copeland's case is atypical, however, in that she contracted the bacteria through water, Roemmele says. Some have contracted the bacteria in shellfish, while shucking oysters, for example. And in a strikingly similar case to Copeland's, a Long Island woman contracted the bacteria last year on spring break while playing in the water.
"She almost lost her leg; as she went into surgery, she was told her leg would be amputated," Roemmele says. Instead, surgeons were able to remove only flesh, and she made it to her graduation ceremony two weeks after her skin grafts.
But most cases are caused by group A streptococcus bacteria that don't respond to antibiotics, the culprit of the common Strep throat; a mixed bacterial infection can also occur after surgery.
About 10,000 cases of group A streptococcus occur every year in the U.S. A few hundred cases of NF occur annually, Schaffner says, and about 20 percent of cases are fatal.
Although there's no specific method of prevention, Roemmele recommends keeping your immune system as healthy as possible.
"Give it the best shot you can by keeping healthy," she says.