Georgia Man Gets Flesh-eating Infection After Dip in Gulf of Mexico: 'I Almost Lost My Leg or My Life'

A Georgia man became infected with flesh-eating bacteria after swimming in the waters off Panama City Beach, northwest Florida.

Tony Meredith began to develop flu-like symptoms around five days afterwards, which progressively worsened to the point where he decided to go to hospital, WDHN reported.

He was initially diagnosed with a kidney infection, but after his leg turned purple, doctors took bacterial samples which showed Meredith had necrotizing fasciitis—a rare, potentially fatal infection caused by several different types of bacteria which move rapidly through the body attacking the skin and soft tissue, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.)

The name refers to the fact that these bacteria cause the death of soft tissues—for example those that surround muscles, nerves, fat and blood vessels—which can lead to the shutting down of organs in severe cases.

"I almost lost my leg or my life," Meredith told WDHN. "[One of the doctors] had told me it was a type of strep, but then on Tuesday, when he'd come and seen me, he told me it was the flesh-eating kind."

The bacteria that cause the flesh-eating condition—such as group A streptococcus and Vibrio vulnificus—can enter the body via breaks in the skin, such as cuts and scrapes, burns, insect bites, puncture wounds and surgical wounds.

Doctors at Southeast Health Emergency Medicine in Alabama where Meredith was treated said that a small barely noticeable scratch just under his knee may have been the route of entry for the bacteria which is found in the water.

"The skin is the body's most important barrier to infection," Andrew Sawyer from Southeast Health told WDHN. "Any violation of that skin, even something as small as a scratch has the potential to increase the potential for waterborne infection."

Doctors administered Meredith antibiotics to treat the infection and he is now in recovery, although he says his foot is still in pain.

Last week, the Florida Department of Health in Bay County (FDHBC) said that people with breaks in the skin should exercise caution when swimming in warm salty waters such as the Gulf of Mexico and surrounding bays due to the risk of these kinds of infection. While such infections are rare, concentrations of these bacteria are higher when the water is warmer.

"These infections can be treated with antibiotics and sometimes require surgery to remove damaged tissue," a statement from the FDHBC read. "Rapid diagnosis is the key to effective treatment and recovery. Healthy people with a strong immune system who do not have fresh cuts, scrapes or breaks in the skin should be able to enjoy the water."

However, the CDC and FDHBC recommend that those who do have breaks in the skin should avoid open bodies of water in the Gulf and bays, hot tubs and pools. Necrotizing fasciitis occurs in about 0.4 people per 100,000 every year in the United States, according to a study published in the journal Skeletal Radiology.