Flesh-eating cases on the rise in B.C.

Associated Press

VICTORIA, British Columbia — Two more cases of the infection that causes flesh-eating disease were reported on Vancouver Island over the weekend, boosting the total to 16 since September.

Regional health experts say the number of people admitted to hospital with invasive streptococcus A, the infection that can cause flesh-eating disease, is well above the annual average of about a dozen cases.

"We’re in an outbreak situation in that we’ve exceeded our threshold for the whole year any way you look at it," Dr. Pamela Kibsey, an infectious-disease expert in Victoria, said Saturday.

Necrotizing fasciitis — commonly known as flesh-eating disease — can set in when streptococcus A bacteria invade healthy tissue, either through a break in the skin or internally, and release toxins in healthy tissue.

Necrotizing fasciitis has killed two people since September.

At least five other people who developed the disease, four of them in Victoria, survived.

A 61-year-old Victoria woman died last week from the disease after contracting it from a cut on her toe.

"The community needs to know that what may be just a minor infection can certainly culminate in a death such as the one we’ve had," regional coroner Dianne Olson said.

The coroner’s office stepped in because the death was unexpected, she added.

A Vancouver-area man died in a hospital on Dec. 22 after a 29-day battle with the disease.

Kibsey said the latest two cases of streptococcus A were an older man and woman, one from Comox and the other from Nanaimo, both on southern Vancouver Island. They are now in a Victoria hospital.

Just before Christmas, doctors had to amputate the right arm of a 41-year-old North Vancouver woman with flesh-eating disease.

Doctors have been kept abreast of the situation via weekly newsletters, and health officials have been flooded with calls from concerned citizens.

Dr. Don Low, a leading infectious-diseases expert, predicts more cases on Vancouver Island.

"I would not be surprised to see more cases occurring in Victoria over the next few months," said Low, of Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital.

"The bacteria is able to adapt. It’s able to change and it can acquire different toxins."

But the public need not worry, even though Victoria averaged only four cases a year during the late 1990s, said Dr. Linda Poffenroth, deputy medical officer for the Victoria region.

Before the current outbreak, the most recent fatality in Victoria was in 1998.

"I don’t want (the public) to be alarmed at all," Poffenroth said.

"The germ is circulating in the community and most people are having either no problem with it at all or the usual throat problem."

Health officials aren’t sure why the number of serious streptococcus infections has jumped, Poffenroth said.

"There are not specific things that we can do, unfortunately, to control this organism in the community."

Copyright ©2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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