Flesh-eating bug death toll hits new high

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 July, 2011, 12:00am


A deadly flesh-eating disease has killed more people this year than in the past two years combined.

Five people have died from the bacterial disease so far this year compared to one last year and two in 2009, while 16 people had been admitted to public hospitals by the end of June. Over the whole of 2009, there were 11 admissions.

The disease mainly affects the elderly and the chronically ill, and can be caused by two bacteria - Vibrio vulnificus or group A streptococcus - which can also cause scarlet fever among young children.

The surge in cases coincides with an outbreak of scarlet fever which had topped 830 infections by Saturday - well above the previous two years.

Doctors said that with the transmission of group A streptococcus especially active this year, the flesh-eating disease and scarlet fever would both be more common.

University of Hong Kong microbiologist Professor Ho Pak-leung said the two diseases were periodic and in recent years the number of infections had peaked more frequently.

'It is probably because a large part of our population has not been exposed to the bacteria before and so does not have the antibodies,' he said.

The Centre for Health Protection and the Medical Association met yesterday to discuss the increasing number of flesh-eating-disease cases.

Most of the infections - which can kill a patient in 12 to 24 hours - began in limb injuries.

'If the wounds turn black or become unbearably painful, one should see a doctor immediately,' Ho said. 'Some people who died only went to the doctor after two to three days, leading to a delay in treatment.'

Flesh-eating disease is normally treated with antibiotics. In many cases, surgery is also needed.

Ho said as long as scarlet fever activity remained high, there would be more cases of flesh-eating disease.

The university recently discovered that the cause of this year's scarlet fever outbreak was a genetic mutation in group A streptococcus.

The mutated strains were found in 26 out of 41 samples taken between 2008 and 2010, according to the Centre for Health Protection.

By July 9 there had been 831 scarlet fever cases, compared to 187 in 2009 and 128 last year. Two infected children, aged seven and five, died in May and June.


The number of deaths this year

- By the end of June, 16 people were admitted to hospital with infections