A New Jersey man infected with flesh-eating bacteria may lose limbs and is fighting for his life — here’s what to know about the condition

Perez was infected with flesh-eating vibrio bacteria while wading in the brackish waters of the Maurice River.

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Perez was infected with flesh-eating vibrio bacteria while wading in the brackish waters of the Maurice River.
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Shutterstock/dreikim

  • A New Jersey man was infected with bacteria that cause necrotizing fasciitis, also known as flesh-eating disease, while wading in brackish river water.
  • The man, Angel Perez, is currently being treated by doctors. It’s unclear whether they’ll have to amputate his limbs as they try to save his life.
  • Flesh-eating disease can be caused by a variety of bacteria, and it kills up 30% of those infected.

Angel Perez went crabbing in New Jersey’s Maurice River on July 2, as he did frequently, according to his daughter, Dilena Perez-Dilan, who spoke to local ABC News station WPVI.

But a few hours after he got out of the water, Perez’s leg started to blister, swell, and change to a “brown, blackish color,” his daughter told the news station.

Perez was infected with bacteria that can cause flesh-eating disease, known as necrotizing fasciitis. A number of different bacteria can cause the infection, which causes soft tissue like skin, muscle, ligaments, blood vessels, and fat to die. The disease kills up to 30% of those infected if it’s not stopped.

The infection spread to Perez’s other leg and both arms. Doctors at Cooper University Hospital are treating him with antibiotics and trying to save his life. The only two treatment options are antibiotics or amputation, but it’s still unknown whether any or all of his limbs will have to be amputated.

In this case, doctors say Perez was infected with Vibrio bacteria, which can be found in water that’s brackish (meaning partially salty), especially in warm summer months.

There are approximately a dozen types of Vibriobacteria. Most cause an unpleasant condition called vibriosis that can resolve within a few days, but one rare type of Vibrio bacteria can cause necrotizing fasciitis.

Anyone exposed to the bacteria can get infected, especially if they have open cuts or wounds. Perez reportedly has Parkinson’s, which puts him at even higher risk of infection.

Skin lesions caused by Vibrio vulnificus bacteria after Hurricane Katrina.

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Skin lesions caused by Vibrio vulnificus bacteria after Hurricane Katrina.
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CDC

Vibrio, flesh-eating bacteria, and brackish water

One specific form of Vibrio bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus, is especially dangerous. This infection can cause blistering skin lesions, bloodstream infections, and necrotizing fasciitis if a wound gets infected. But it’s rare: the CDC estimates that there are about 205 cases in the US every year, with just a few of those in New Jersey.

Vibrio is more commonly a risk for people wading through floodwaters. After Hurricane Harvey, a flesh-eating bacteria infection resulted in at least one fatality, and there were several Vibrio deaths after Hurricane Katrina.

Most of the 80,000 vibriosis infections that occur in the US every year are less serious, according to the CDC. Estimates suggest 52,000 of those cases are likely the result of eating contaminated food, especially raw seafood. About 80% of those infections occur between May and October, when water is particularly warm – an ideal condition for colonies of bacteria to grow and thrive.

Contaminated floodwaters can host Vibrio bacteria.

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Contaminated floodwaters can host Vibrio bacteria.
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Thomson Reuters

Signs of the disease

Necrotizing fasciitis is most often caused by group A Streptococcus bacteria and some other types. But flesh-eating disease caused by Vibriois treated differently from other bacteria that can cause the same condition, so identifying it is important.

Flesh-eating disease is one of the most common signs of Vibrio vulnificus, according to one study.

People are more susceptible to necrotizing fasciitis if they have a condition or illness that weakens their immune system, as Perez does. But the bacteria usually causes infection at the site of a cut or wound regardless. Normally, the condition is accompanied by extreme pain that may start as soreness, like the feeling of a pulled muscle, but quickly becomes more severe. Spreading areas of discolored skin are a sign of the condition as well.

If any of these symptoms are present after a wound appears, or if you have fever, chills, or vomiting, the CDC advises seeing a doctor for treatment immediately.

In Perez’s case, the family hopes he sought out treatment in time to save his limbs or his life, his daughter told NJ Advance Media.