Texas health officials fear new strains of strep
March 10, 1998
Child being examined for strep A
Web posted at: 11:49 p.m. EST (0449 GMT)
AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- Health officials can't explain why a strain of bacteria has sickened so many people in Texas.
Twenty-six Texans -- nine children among them -- have died from complications of invasive Group A streptococcus bacteria since December 1. Ninety-seven others have been sickened but survived after being treated with antibiotics.
In its most common form, strep A causes no more than a nasty sore throat and fever.
But the damage from one form of strep A is horrific. Necrotizing fasciitis -- more commonly known as flesh-eating bacteria -- almost killed truck driver Earl Donel. It took six surgeries to stop the aggressive infection, leaving Donel's chest and abdomen a moonscape of scarred flesh.
"If I hadn't gone to the hospital at the time I did... I would not have been alive," he said.
Although the strep outbreak has been confined mostly to central and southeastern Texas, it has generated alarm all over the state.
Thousands have called a hot line for information about symptoms, and doctors offices have been overwhelmed with patients who fear they have strep A, which at first appears to be the common flu.
"It's not something that people commonly know about, and so they're afraid," said Tammy Sajak, an epidemiologist.
Worst of outbreak appears finished
Meanwhile, some experts fear that some of the more than 100 types of strep A have mutated and are now more dangerous. For example, DNA testing has identified a strain known as M-1 in Texas.
"The M-1 strain is a strain that produces certain chemicals that make it better able to spread through tissues, and in that regard you can call it a super bug," said Dr. Michael Kelley of the Texas Department of Health.
However, it's still treatable with antibiotics if it is caught early.
While the total number of strep A cases continues to climb slowly, Texas health officials said it appears the worst of the outbreak is finished.
Meanwhile, health workers are advising people to take a simple precaution: They are urging Texans, especially children, to take extra care when washing their hands, saying it is one of the best guards against strep A.
Correspondent Charles Zewe contributed to this report.
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