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GRAND RAPIDS, MI — As Georgia graduate student Aimee Copeland’s struggle against flesh-eating bacteria captures national attention, it is putting a spotlight on a local woman’s effort to raise awareness about the deadly infection.
Donna Batdorff, of Wyoming, helped form the National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation after surviving a life-and-death battle with the disease in 1996. The foundation has become a go-to source for journalists reporting on the case of 24-year-old Copeland, who has lost her left leg, right foot and both hands to deadly bacterial infection.
“We’ve had tons of media contacts and lots of requests for interviews in the past few weeks,” said Batdorff. “The increase in awareness makes us glad, but that’s a terrible way to get awareness.”
“We feel horrible for this beautiful young lady and her family. We know she is just one of many (affected by this disease),” said Jacqueline Roemmele, a New Jersey woman who co-founded the foundation with Battdorff. She survived a bout of necrotizing fasciitis after a Cesarean section in 1993.
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The women formed the foundation in 1997 because they were unable to find much information about necrotizing fasciitis that could be readily understood by non-medical experts. Their goal is to educate doctors and patients about the importance of early detection and treatment.
Beginning with a small cut
Necrotizing fasciitis is a rare infection, but it is quite deadly. It is usually caused by group A streptococcus bacteria that enter the body through a break in the skin The bacteria produce toxins that quickly destroy tissue – which is why it is often called a “flesh-eating” disease.
For Batdorff, the infection started in a small cut on a finger of her right hand. Within a week, she was on life support. She survived, but she lost three fingers and some skin from her right arm.
Group A strep is the same form of bacteria that causes strep throat; however, there are 60 to 80 different serotypes of group A strep. It’s a bit of a mystery why certain people are susceptible to a necrotizing fasciitis infection, said Dr. Steven Triesenberg, an infectious disease specialist with Spectrum Health.
The theory is that it occurs in people who are temporary carriers of group A strep and who do not have antibodies to that particular strain. The bacteria enter the body through trauma to the skin – which can be through a cut, bruise or even just a punch in the arm.
“You can’t just say it’s bad luck, though it’s partly bad luck,” Triesenberg said. “It’s a cascade of events that occurs.”
Necrotizing fasciitis affects 500 to 1,500 people a year and kills about a quarter of them,