A Terrifying Illness Stalks Seaside Australia: Flesh-Consuming Ulcers

He has treated over a thousand patients in Australia and overseas for the disease. Many of those in Australia are older, others are young teachers, workers and even children.

He carefully measures her lesions with a ruler and marks them to track their progress. Although they look like nightmares – some have ulcers that eat to the bone – most patients describe them as painless. The carnivorous toxin produced by the bacteria is a particular horror: it both weakens the immune response and numbs the meat it consumes. It is “really quite an extraordinary organism,” said Dr. O’Brien on the bacterium, “and a formidable enemy.”

In Mr. Courtney’s case, the ulcer had devastated the upper half of his foot before doctors could make a diagnosis. They have since performed surgeries to remove the necrotic, concrete-like tissue. “If you don’t get rid of this dead flesh, the skin will never heal,” said Dr. Adrian Murrie, a doctor in the clinic who treated Mr. Courtney.

Other patients with less severe cases sometimes decline treatment and choose natural remedies such as heat and clay instead. Although the body can occasionally fight off smaller ulcers, such treatments can pose real danger in severe cases, said Dr. O’Brien.

In most cases, the treatment will be antibiotics. In the past, the disease was largely operated on, but with better medication, the prognosis has improved significantly in recent years. “The antibiotics were thought to be ineffective,” said Dr. O’Brien. “Because it actually gets worse before it gets better.”

At the moment, however, prevention is next to impossible.

“We don’t know how to stop it,” he said. But if the answer can be found anywhere, he said, it is in Australia.

For Mr. Courtney, his battle with the disease is far from over. Doctors expect his treatment to last at least six months.