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Science and Innovations

Deadly Strep 'Superbug' Identified in Coconino County


Flagstaff scientists have identified a rare strain of “flesh eating bacteria” in Coconino County. It’s the first time the “superbug” has been seen in Arizona.

The bacteria, called Group A Strep, typically causes Strep throat. But this unusual strain causes severe skin infections instead, sometimes leading to amputations or death.

Local health officials identified 18 cases last year. They worked with Flagstaff’s Translational Genomics Research Institute, or TGen, to confirm the genetic identity of the strain.  

David Engelthaler led the investigation. “The analysis is ongoing,” he says. “We don’t think there’s a large risk to the public in general, but we also know that there are steps we’ve got to take to be vigilant and keep looking for cases. It may be that we’ve seen the whole thing, but it may also be just the tip of the iceberg.”

Engelthaler says the infection seems to be spread by skin-to-skin contact. Most of the reported cases occurred in jails and homeless shelters.

The same strain of bacteria caused a nationwide epidemic in Canada a decade ago, but it’s rarely seen in the United States. 

The full report appears in Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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