An Australian woman is the third person ever infected with a deadly bacteria – and the first to survive, medical experts say.
The 48-year-old walked into a hospital in Sydney after spending three days throwing up, according to an Aug. 16 case report published in the Medical Journal of Australia.
She told doctors there was a pain in her abdomen that was growing by the day, and she started to have diarrhea, according to the report.
Her stomach was still soft, meaning it likely wasn’t an obstruction, but she had extreme tenderness above her right hip, doctors said.
When doctors tested her blood, they learned she was in liver and kidney failure, but didn’t have excess fluid in her body, according to the report.
Doctors thought the pain must be caused by some kind of infection, and they started her on a variation of penicillin, they said.
When doctors took a CT scan of her body just five hours later, they saw inflammation and the breakdown of the tissues around her intestines and colon, according to the report.
She was tested for a wide range of infections, but when the tests came back, it was something the doctors had never seen before.
The 48-year-old had a Clostridium chauvoei infection – blackleg.
What is ‘blackleg’?
Clostridium chauvoei, more commonly known as blackleg, is a bacteria that lives in soil and manure in a dormant state, according to an article in the Pathologic Basis of Veterinary Disease.
The spores of the bacteria are typically inhaled or ingested by beef cattle or goats, and remain dormant in their bodies until there is jostling or muscle bruising that knocks the spores into the bloodstream and then into the muscles of the animal, the article said.
Those types of injuries occur normally during the handling and moving of commercial livestock, the article said.
As the bacteria grows inside the muscles of the animals, it releases a toxin that kills muscle cells, turning the once strong and meaty part of the body into black mush, the Commonwealth Journal reported.
Cows, typically under a year old, can die as soon as 12 hours after the bacteria becomes active in their bodies, the outlet reported.
In some cases, the bacteria releases enough gas as it breaks down the muscle that it will build up under the skin and create a type of “bubble wrap” that cracks and rattles, the outlet reported.
With a near 100% fatality rate in cattle, the agricultural sector has created a vaccine that is part of maintaining the regular health of a herd, according to the University of West Virginia.
But how did a woman in Australia pick up the deadly infection?
Woman becomes third to be infected – ever
When doctors asked the woman what she was doing leading up to her symptoms, she said she hadn’t seen anyone who was sick or traveled, but she had done some gardening, according to the report.
She told them she hadn’t used gloves as she handled soil while she had scratches on her hands, courtesy of a domestic cat, doctors said.
The doctors believe the bacteria was sitting dormant in her gardening soil, until an open wound was stuck in the dirt.
When the woman’s hands dug through the soil, the spores were able to enter into her bloodstream through the scratches on her hand, the doctors said.
Just a few days later, her body was shutting down.
The antibiotics were working, but not fast enough, and the muscles in her abdomen were dying, the doctors said.
To try and get ahead of the necrosis, or cell death, the doctors performed an emergency laparotomy, according to the report, which is a surgery that opens the abdomen.
The doctors found extensive black, squishy, muscles around her organs, according to the report.
All of the necrotic muscle that could be safely removed was cut out of her body, and she continued on a high dose of antibiotics, doctors said.
The treatment was a success, and as she was discharged from the hospital, she became the first human to ever survive the infection, according to the report.
Only two other cases of blackleg in humans have been reported; one person became infected but was immunocompromised, and another infection occurred in muscle gangrene for a patient that had a traumatic injury, according to the report.
Both of the other patients died, the doctors said.
“In conclusion, C. chauvoei is an aggressive pathogen that had been considered lethal,” the doctors said, “until now.”