Flesh-eating bacteria that can kill you in 48 hours on the rise in Japan

Experts warn that STSS can kill you within 48 hours. Picture: CDC/Pexels

Experts warn that STSS can kill you within 48 hours. Picture: CDC/Pexels

Published Jun 20, 2024


Japan is grappling with a concerning surge in cases of a rare "flesh-eating bacteria" that can be fatal within 48 hours.

The rise in infections has followed the relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions, according to a report by “Japan Times”.

The National Institute of Infectious Diseases has documented 977 cases of Streptococcal Toxic Shock Syndrome (STSS) by June 2 this year, surpassing the previous record of 941 cases reported last year.

Health experts fear the situation could deteriorate further, potentially escalating to 2 500 cases by the end of the year.

STSS is a rare but deadly bacterial illness when bacteria enter the bloodstream and deep tissues. It has a high mortality rate of around 30%. Between January and March 2024, the syndrome has claimed 77 lives.

Ken Kikuchi, a professor of infectious diseases at Tokyo Women’s Medical University, explained the rapid progression of the disease.

“Most of the deaths happen within 48 hours,” he said. A patient might notice foot swelling in the morning and, by noon, the swelling can reach the knee. They could die within 48 hours.“

The outbreak has already exceeded previous records, making it the worst since the National Institute began tracking the disease in 1999.

Bloomberg reports that Japan witnessed the second-highest number of STSS-related deaths in the past six years, with 97 fatalities.

The rising number of infections has alarmed health officials and the public alike, leading to widespread concern and urgent discussions on how to combat this deadly outbreak.

Understanding flesh-eating bacteria

What is STSS?

Streptococcal Toxic Shock Syndrome (STSS), often referred to as "flesh-eating bacteria", is a rare but severe complication of Streptococcus infection.

According to a study published in the journal Cureus, STSS is generally caused by two types of bacteria: Staphylococcus aureus (staph) and group A streptococcus (strep).

According to the CDC, STSS is deemed a fatal infection due to its severe complications. Picture: Edward Jenner/Pexels

This infection becomes particularly dangerous when the bacteria enter the bloodstream and infect deep tissues.

It can affect both adults and children, producing toxins that trigger a hyper-inflammatory response.

This response can lead to shock, rapid tissue necrosis (necrosis is the death of bodily tissue often caused by injury or infection) and extreme pain.

Symptoms of STSS

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have outlined the early symptoms of STSS. Initially, patients may experience:

  • Muscle pain
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fever or chills

Within 24-48 hours, these symptoms can worsen significantly. At this stage, serious conditions include:

  • Low blood pressure (hypotension)
  • Rapid breathing (tachypnea)
  • Fast heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Organ failure

Why is STSS considered fatal?

STSS is deemed a fatal infection due to its severe complications.

The CDC warns that the condition can cause the body to shut down and enter a state of shock, often necessitating surgical intervention.

Infected tissues or limbs may need to be removed to prevent the infection from spreading.

According to “The Express Tribune”, even with treatment, STSS remains incredibly deadly. CDC data indicates that out of every 10 people diagnosed with STSS, 3 do not survive the condition.

STSS symptoms

The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare has issued an urgent notice warning the public to be aware of symptoms that could indicate the presence of Streptococcal Toxic Shock Syndrome (STSS).

The ministry advises people to watch for fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and the appearance of a rash or bruises.

How it spreads

Health experts say the STSS bacteria spread through respiratory droplets, direct contact, and contaminated food.

Those who carry the bacteria in their intestines can spread it if they don’t wash their hands properly, leading to contaminated surfaces and potential infection of others.

The bacteria can also enter the body through open wounds, cuts or skin infections.

Risk groups

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "People with an open wound are at increased risk for STSS."

This risk group includes individuals who have recently undergone surgery or suffered a viral infection causing open sores.

However, experts remain puzzled as to how the bacteria enter the body in nearly half of STSS cases.

Health professionals stress the importance of preventing STSS through good hygiene practices, such as regular hand washing and covering one’s mouth while coughing or sneezing.

Proper wound care is crucial, and immediate medical attention should be sought for any signs of infection.

Global concerns

The World Health Organization (WHO) has been informed about the situation in Japan and is closely monitoring developments.

WHO experts advise that STSS is rare outside specific risk groups, including people with weakened immune systems, menstruating women, and those with wounds or burns.

As health experts continue to monitor this alarming infection, awareness and early detection remain crucial in combating its deadly impact.