July 26, 2014

Three new cases of flesh-eating disease in Omaha are “not an epidemic”

After treating six cases of flesh-eating disease in one month earlier this year, officials at the Nebraska Medical Center say that appears to have just been a fluke, not an outbreak.

Dr. Jeff Cooper, medical director of the hospital’s hyperbaric oxygen unit where those patients are treated, says they’ve only had three more cases since May.

“It was somewhat unusual to have that initial cluster all within about a four or five-week period but I think that was just a random event,” Dr. Cooper says. “Since we are the referral center, we see a disproportionately high number of cases because people send them to us preferentially from around the area.”

The affliction is called necrotizing fasciitis. It’s very rare and it kills 30 to 40% of the people who become infected. The Nebraska Medical Center is home to the state’s only level-one hyperbaric oxygen unit.

While the Omaha hospital has treated a total of nine patients this year with the flesh-eating disease, Cooper says it’s nothing the general public needs to worry about as the affliction is very rare.

Cooper says, “This is not an epidemic, in fact, these are all different organisms and this has much more to do with a patient’s vulnerability to infections rather than the virulence of the infection.”

Of the three latest patients, two were from the Omaha area and a third was from Raymond. Dr. Cooper says all had their own complications, one from alcoholism, another from diabetes and obesity and the third from a chronic injury.

The flesh-eating bacteria doesn’t usually spread from one person to another, but if you come in contact with someone who is infected, you may have that bacteria on your body. Doctors say it’s important to clean all cuts and puncture wounds with soap and water and then a bandage. If it does become infected, seek medical treatment immediately.

Symptoms include extreme pain and discharge, swelling around the wound, a foul smell and the skin may become soft and discolored.