A homeowner dumps flood-damaged debris on his front yard in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey at the Canyon Gate community in Katy, Tex., in September. (AP)
A 31-year-old Texas man died of a rare flesh-eating bacterial infection last week, nearly two months after Hurricane Harvey made landfall and the man began repairing homes damaged by the floods.
On Monday, the Galveston County Health District said the man went to a hospital on Oct. 10 with a “seriously” infected wound on his upper left arm. He was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis — a rare bacterial infection that kills soft tissue — and died six days later.
The Houston news channel KHOU identified the man as Josue Zurita. An obituary said Zurita was a hard-working carpenter who left Mexico to help provide for his family, and that he became infected while working to rebuild Harris and Galveston counties.
“He's a very caring person,” Brenda Avalos, the wife of one of Zurita's cousins, told KHOU. “He has a lot of friends here in Galveston that love him. Everybody is very sad. He was very young and always smiling.”
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Philip Keiser, the local health authority for Galveston County, said in a news release published by the health district that the infection most likely occurred when bacteria from hurricane debris or floodwater entered the man’s body through a wound or cut. This case was the only known instance of necrotizing fasciitis in Galveston County related to Hurricane Harvey, according to the news release.
Keiser told CNN that he has seen such infections spread over mere hours.
“Even in one case, as I was examining a patient, I could see the red spread in the minutes I was examining him, and that's the real danger to it,” Keiser said. “As it spreads, it's going up the space between the muscle and skin, and as it does that, it kills all the nerves and the blood vessels can clot.”
Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane late on the night of Aug. 25. Analysts described the storm as a 1-in-1,000-year flood event that dominated huge swaths of Southeast Texas. In mid-September, Texas officials said more than 80 people had died as a result of the storm and the subsequent flooding throughout Houston and coastal areas, though it would take weeks to determine an exact death toll.
Infectious disease after a flood is typically a short-term concern, as The Post's Ben Guarino reported last month. In September 2005, shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the CDC reported 30 cases of MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staphylococcus bacterium, among a group of evacuees sent to Dallas.
Tetanus booster shots can be one means of defense against infectious diseases. The health district's news release also noted that proper wound care is vital to preventing infections. That includes keeping wounds covered with clean, dry bandages until they heal, and seeking medical attention for any redness, swelling or fever. Even minor, noninfected wounds — like blisters or scrapes — should be treated immediately.
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Stress also has a negative effect on the immune system, and ensuring food hygiene can be especially difficult in disaster zones. People’s risk of getting sick increases further when they are packed into crowded areas, like a mega-shelter, after a natural disaster.
The CDC warns against eating or drinking anything contaminated by floodwater that can cause diarrheal disease, such as E. coli or salmonella infection.
CNN reported that on Sept. 15, a 77-year-old woman, Nancy Reed, also died of flesh-eating bacteria near Houston. A medical examiner report said the cause of the Reed's death was necrotizing fasciitis. Reed was helping her son clear out his home when she accidentally injured herself and contracted the disease, according to an associate pastor at the church that hosted Reed’s memorial service.
One man, J.R. Atkins, told KHOU earlier this month that he was fighting flesh-eating bacteria. Atkins, a former first responder, wrote on Facebook about how he “nearly died” after noticing a small bite on his left arm that gradually swelled to his hand. Atkins spent time in the ICU after kayaking through his neighborhood checking on people affected by the floods.
On Facebook, Zurita was remembered his for his smile and willingness to help his neighbors.
“I'll never forget sitting on the front porch playing Lotteria [Mexican Bingo]," read one post.
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