By Fran Jeffries
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The bacteria that causes the flesh-decaying infection that attacked Aimee Copeland is present in normal levels in the Little Tallapoosa River, according to a laboratory hired to test the water.
The University of West Georgia graduate student from Snellville contracted the infection after gashing her calf on rocks in the river on May 1. News of her illness prompted the city of Carrollton to have a local lab test for the Aeromonas hydrophila bacteria.
“We try to be proactive on issues of water quality,” Assistant City Manager Tim Grizzard told the AJC. “We looked for anything out of the ordinary, but there wasn’t anything.”
Grizzard told the AJC he ordered the tests on May 14. Carrollton’s water supply comes from the river. Grizzard noted that Aeromonas is not found in the treated water that goes into customers’ lines.
The lab took samples above and below the city’s wastewater treatment plant, said Denny Ivey, spokesman for Environmental Labs and Services of Carrollton. The lab tested for several other bacteria as well, Ivey told the AJC. “Compared to other bacteria, it didn’t seem relatively high,” he said.
Ivey and other experts have pointed out that Aeromonas is very common in any surface water sample, especially when the weather gets warmer.
Ivey said the upstream test showed a bacterial count of 1,500 colonies per milliliter (ml). Within the 1,500 colories, 149 bacterial species were observed, and 12 were Aeromonas.
In tests downstream of the wastewater plant, Ivey said 1,900 colonies of bacteria were found per ml. Of the 192 species found, 7 were Aeromonas.
Fecal coliform and E. coli also were detected upstream and downstream.
Aeromonas bacteria reportedly entered through Copeland’s wound and caused a “necrotizing fasciitis” infection that forced doctors to perform multiple amputations, including removing her left leg at the hip.
Copeland, 24, continues to improve at an Augusta hospital after doctors had earlier given her a slim chance of survival. On Thursday, she sat up in a chair for the first time since she was hospitalized, her father said on a Facebook page dedicated to Copeland.
Medical professionals said Copeland’s case is extremely rare.
Most people who encounter the bacteria suffer no illness, while others might contract a stomach bug or a minor skin infection, said Dr. Jay Varkey, an epidemiologist in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Emory University School of Medicine. The most serious side effects typically happen to people with weakened immune systems.
“It requires a perfect storm of bad circumstances,” Varkey said. “And when it happens in those rare cases, it can be dramatic.”