Originally created 03/12/98

Tissue-destroying bacterium kills S.C. college freshman



COLUMBIA -- A rare tissue-destroying bacterium, the same streptococcus strain that has killed 26 people in Texas since December, was responsible for the death of a 19-year-old University of South Carolina freshman, doctors say.

An autopsy has confirmed that Justin Porter, who died March 4, had the infection.

In its normal pattern, the same strep bacterium causes ordinary illnesses such as sore throats. In its raging form, the organism quickly destroys tissue, which has earned it the nickname of "flesh-eating bacteria."

"There's not a lot we know about all this," Richland County Coroner Frank Barron said Tuesday. "This particular infection is fast-moving, and not many people are familiar with it."

When Mr. Porter arrived at a hospital emergency room complaining of severe chest pain the evening of March 4, doctors were baffled. The usual tests failed to turn up answers.

By midnight, the 185-pound, 6-foot-1 former Hammond School quarterback was dead.

Doctors are not sure how the virulent strep bacteria entered Mr. Porter's body, but they suspect it was through abrasions he got during a fight two weeks earlier and say there is no need for public alarm.

"Isolated cases sometimes occur, but this doesn't sweep through a community like the flu," said Dr. Charles Bryan, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of South Carolina medical school.

The bacterium typically enters the body through skin infections at the site of a minor wound or puncture, according to the National Institutes of Health.

In the Texas cases, some of the infected children had chicken pox sores. Mr. Porter had a scraped elbow that looked as if it had not been cared for properly, said his lead physician, Dr. Mark Mayson.

"It looked a little dirty," Dr. Mayson said. "Potentially, this bug gained access through the broken skin and circulated in the bloodstream."

The coroner's office is gathering information on how fast the infection spreads so that it can decide how and when the strep bacterium entered Mr. Porter's body, Mr. Barron said. He said he has never seen a case like Mr. Porter's in his 20 years as coroner.

The deadly form of streptococcus is so rare that few doctors have had experience with it. At the Palmetto Baptist Medical Center emergency room, several doctors were called in to try to figure out what was wrong with Mr. Porter.

Doctors think blood from a broken vessel in Mr. Porter's chest might have puddled and become a perfect culture for the bacterium.

Most cases like this are fatal, the National Institutes of Health says. In some cases, removing the affected tissue or limb amputation can stop the infection's progress.

Another seemingly healthy South Carolina high school quarterback died of a massive infection in 1992. Delbert McKell "Kell" Grant, 17, of Hampton, died nine days after he suffered a thigh bruise during a Wade Hampton High football game.