Killer Bacteria a Rarity, Doctors Note : Health: It doesn’t actually eat flesh and it kills only 500 people a year in the U.S., experts say. A person is 120 times more likely to die in a car wreck.


Although the so-called flesh-eating bacteria that killed two Southern Californians within a week has provoked widespread concern, the actual risk from it is quite small, experts said Friday.

No more than 500 of the 250 million people in the United States die of the disease each year, making the risk of death a minuscule 0.2 per 100,000.

In contrast, a person is 55 times more likely to be struck by lightning, at least 20 times more likely to die of influenza and 120 times more likely to die in a car wreck.


It is the disease’s name, and not its actual death rate, that makes it so fearful to the public, said Dr. Shirley L. Fannin, director of public health disease control programs for Los Angeles County. The term flesh-eating bacteria “is a total misnomer,” she said. “The concept of eating flesh is sheer nonsense.”

“People have the idea in their heads that it (the bacterium) is like Pac-Man, gobbling up flesh, but that’s just not how it works,” said Dr. Wilbert Mason, an infectious diseases specialist at Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles. What the bacterium--called a Group A streptococcus--actually does is choke off capillaries, preventing blood from reaching tissue. The tissue then dies for lack of oxygen, producing a condition called necrotizing fasciitis.

But the disease is quite rare, Fannin said. Dr. Carol Peterson and her colleagues from the county Department of Health Services did an intensive study of severe Group A streptococcus infections from January, 1993, to June of this year.

They found only 67 severe Group A infections during that period in the county, which has a population of more than 9 million. Only 10 of the 67 patients had necrotizing fasciitis. Eighteen of the 67 died, including four with necrotizing fasciitis.

Normal monitoring since June has shown no increase in the rate of severe infection, Fannin added.

But Mason pointed out that several of last year’s cases occurred in patients with chicken pox, and he urged parents and physicians to check chicken pox patients carefully for a large area of inflammation. “An inordinate amount of fever or toxicity should be a tipoff,” he said.

Others can protect themselves by observing a few simple precautions, Fannin added. “When people have a fever and a very sore throat, they probably should have it looked at” by a doctor, she said.


“They also need to be concerned about an infection anywhere on their skin,” she said. “If there is pain, swelling, redness or heat at the site, you need treatment because it is bacterial.” Treatment generally consists of a powerful antibiotic such as clindamycin.

But she cautioned that Group A streptococcus bacteria can occasionally strike quickly and fatally. “You have to realize that some of these people have sudden onsets and it (the bacteria) has done its damage before any reasonable person would have reached the doctor.”

That is apparently what happened to the as-yet unidentified man who died at Torrance Memorial Medical Center on Thursday. He was infected when the bacteria entered a cut on his foot where he had shaved a callus, according to Dr. John Chia.

Times correspondent Susan Woodward contributed to this story.