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A reality check on flesh-eating bacteria

Brazilian beauty Mariana Bridi da Costa’s sudden death after many amputations sounded like the script of a classic celluloid horror flick, and conspiracy theorists went wild debating the possibilities of what could have killed her.

health and fitness Updated: Jan 31, 2009 23:45 IST

Brazilian beauty Mariana Bridi da Costa’s sudden death after many amputations sounded like the script of a classic celluloid horror flick, and conspiracy theorists went wild debating the possibilities of what could have killed her. It was a mutant flesh-eating bacteria, claimed one group, while another said it was an experimental drug that caused her death.


They are all wrong. What killed the 20-year-old former beauty queen was a common blood infection called sepsis (septicaemia) caused by a common bacteria, Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

It began as a urinary tract infection (UTI), infected the kidneys and spread rapidly through her body, killing her despite doctors performing several amputations in their struggle to save her: a part of her stomach was removed and her feet and hands amputed before she died.

The bacteria that killed her is widely prevalent in India and is a common cause of stomach infections and UTIs in the country than the more infamous E Coli. P. aeruginosa usually infects the urinary tract, lungs, kidneys, burns and wounds, and leads to inflammation and blood infections.

UTIs caused by P. aeruginosa and other Pseudomonas are the most common hospital-acquired infection in India. The bacteria travel up through the urinary tract to the kidneys, and then get into the blood and lead to sepsis. Treatment with antibiotics can wipe out or suppress the bacteria, but the right combinations of drugs have to be given since the bacteria are highly drug-resistant.

P. aeruginosa infection usually does not cause dramatic illness right away, but it can progress quickly, especially among people with low immunity because of existing infections or disease, or people on diets who do not get enough nutrients and micronutrients.

Since the bacteria can thrive on very little oxygen, they contaminate many areas familiar to us, such as bathrooms, swimming pools, toilets, kitchen sinks and medical equipment, such as catheters and ventilators, causing cross infections in clinics and hospitals.

Pseudomonas are the most common cause of hospital-acquired infection in India, reported Dr Javiya Viren and colleagues in the Indian Journal of Pharmacology in September 2008. Treatment with antibiotics is effective, provided the right combination is given as the bacteria are highly drug-resistant. The takeway from de Bridi’s experience, of course, is —don’t ignore UTIs, the symptoms for which include frequent urge to urinate; a painful, burning feeling in the area of the bladder or urethra during urination; generalised pain in and around the bladder and lower back, and milky or cloudy urine.