The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A woman survived a fall into Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters — only to die of a flesh-eating infection

Floodwaters are seen surrounding houses and apartment complexes in West Houston, on Aug. 30. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

A Texas woman died earlier this month after contracting a flesh-eating infection from floodwaters brought by Hurricane Harvey, according to health officials in Houston.

The Houston Chronicle reported that Nancy Reed, 77, of Houston, contracted a dangerous bacterial skin infection after she fell into dirty floodwater in her son’s home, breaking and cutting open her arm.

The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences said that Reed died Sept. 15 of necrotizing fasciitis, “complicating blunt trauma of an upper extremity.” Her death marks the 36th fatality in the United States that has been connected to Hurricane Harvey, according to the Houston Chronicle.

“It’s tragic,” David Persse, a physician and director of Houston’s EMS and Public Health Authority, told the newspaper earlier this week. “This is one of the things we'd been worrying about once the flooding began, that something like this might occur. My heart goes out to the family.”

The health dangers from Hurricane Harvey’s floods and Houston’s chemical plants

Reed, who was born in Pittsburgh in 1940, was as an elementary school teacher until she went to work with her husband, Gary, at the Reed Agency. Her obituary states that she headed, a site for online obituaries, was the president of the Reed Foundation, and was active in her church, First Presbyterian Church in Kingwood.

The infection that killed her, necrotizing fasciitis, spreads swiftly, destroying the body’s soft tissues, and soon after, can lead to death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although necrotizing fasciitis is believed to be most often caused by the bacterium group A Streptococcus, other bacteria can also lead to the infection, including Klebsiella, Clostridium, Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus, and Aeromonas hydrophila, according to the CDC. The CDC reported that most infections caused by group A strep are easy to treat, “but in cases of necrotizing fasciitis, bacteria spread quickly once they enter the body,” infecting the fascia, or “connective tissue that surround muscles, nerves, fat, and blood vessels.”

Then the toxins from the bacteria kill the body’s tissues.

The CDC estimates that there are about 700 to 1,100 cases of necrotizing fasciitis caused by group A strep each year in the United States.

As The Washington Post’s Ben Guarino reported, after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, the CDC reported 30 cases of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, among a group that had been evacuated and sent to a shelter in Dallas. And Vibrio vulnificus, bacteria commonly described as “flesh-eating,” sickened two dozen people and killed six.

Following hurricanes that have hit the United States and surrounding islands, the CDC released a fact sheet on hurricane safety, warning: “Be careful with floodwater — it can contain dangerous bacteria.” It further states that floodwater may be contaminated with bacteria from sewage and other forms of waste.

“While skin contact with floodwater doesn’t pose a serious health risk by itself, eating or drinking anything contaminated with floodwater can cause diseases,” according to the CDC. The agency added, “If you have any open cuts or sores that will be exposed to floodwater, keep them as clean as possible by washing them with soap and applying an antibiotic ointment to discourage infection.”

The CDC said that necrotizing fasciitis is very rare, but it is most commonly contracted when bacteria infiltrate the body through a break in the skin, such as a cut, a burn or an insect bite. Symptoms, which usually occur within hours after the trauma, include pain and soreness, swelling and sometimes blisters or black spots on the skin. People can also feel fatigued and develop a fever and chills.

Health officials say prompt medical care, which can include antibiotics or surgery, is crucial to keep the deadly infection from spreading.

Read more:

He thought he just had blisters from a hike. He had flesh-eating bacteria and nearly died.

‘Like something out of a horror movie’: Flesh-eating bacteria infection kills man in four days

The ‘frightening’ rise of flesh-eating bacteria: Mystery, pain and amputations