A Common Germ Turns Deadly

updated 06/13/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/13/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE PRESS REPORTS WERE TRULY TERRIFYING. One after another, people in Britain were falling victim to a disease that rapidly ate through their flesh like gangrene, often causing the need for amputations, or death, in a matter of days. Since January, 18 people had been afflicted; 11 had died. Perhaps most disturbing, seven of the victims lived within a 25-mile radius in Gloucestershire, 90 miles west of London, conjuring fears of a Black Plague-type epidemic. True to form, the British tabloids went into a frenzy, complete with gruesome photographs and horror film headlines.

As it turns out, however, the bizarre "killer bug" is no stranger to medical experts. The culprit is the common Group A streptococcus bacteria, which at any given time is carried by roughly 10 percent of all people, usually causing nothing worse than strep throat. But a virulent form of Strep A can result in a variety of more serious illnesses. For instance, it can cause severe pneumonia, like the strain that killed Muppet creator Jim Henson in 1990. In about 500 to 1,500 cases a year in this country, and some 30 in Britain, the bacteria causes the disease necrotizing fasciitis, in which fast-moving enzymes dissolve fat and muscle tissue. "The mystery is not the bug but why these cases have occurred in a small area," said Dr. Roy Fey, a public health official in Gloucestershire. "It may be we're just unlucky."

That, of course, is small comfort to the British victims, several of whom apparently contracted the disease while in the hospital for surgery. (The people most susceptible to the bacteria are those who have undergone surgery or have open wounds.) Roseann Millar, 41, a nurse in the town of Larbert, Scotland, had had a hysterectomy in late January. Ten days after the operation she suddenly felt a severe pain in her left leg. "I noticed a slight bruising and went to bed early because I thought I had been on my feel too long," says Millar. "But when I woke the next morning I could see the bruises through my skin, my abdomen was black and the color extended all the way down my left side and deep into my leg."

She rushed back to the hospital, where her doctor recognized the symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis, which he had encountered a few times in his career. A team of surgeons pared away the dead tissue and managed to save her leg, not to mention her life. "I count myself very, very lucky that I'm still here," says Millar, who will need roughly a year to recover fully.

The most deadly aspect of the disease is its speed. In late April, Brian Bounds, 43, a plumber from Cardiff, Wales, felt leg pains two weeks after coming down with a sore throat. He went to the hospital thinking he had a strained muscle; 18 hours later he was dead. In another case, Dr. David Somerville, 64, a general practitioner in Gloucestershire, barely had time to get to the hospital before he died of the killer bug last February.

For those able to get treatment before the disease progresses too far, antibiotics are highly effective. Still, doctors worry that the Strep A bacteria does seem to be getting more virulent, perhaps due to an inexplicable genetic change. "What's going on in England is of concern to us, of course," says Dr. Jay Wenger, an official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. "We have to look more at whether we're seeing an increase of this kind of thing in the U.S." Whatever the cause, the effects are chilling. One morning last January, Terry Bowden, 39, of Kent, England, was making breakfast for his four children when his leg started to swell up. Within 36 hours he was dead, but not before he experienced the pure terror of feeling a firestorm of pain sweep through his body. "It got hold of him so fast," his wife, Christine, later said. "In the end I don't think he really knew who I was. He was just staring at me, looking really frightened."

ELLIN STEIN and JOHN WRIGHT in London and MEG GRANT in Miami

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