Fri, Jul. 09, 2004
Bacterial infection puts 8 in hospital
Herald Staff Writer
SARASOTA - Eight people have been hospitalized in serious condition during the past couple of weeks as a result of what doctors believe appears to be a sharp increase of intravenous drug use.
Sarasota Memorial Hospital infectious disease specialist Dr. Michael Milam said the patients are suffering from bacterial infections caused by puncturing the skin with unsanitized needles.
"We want the people out there to know there appears to be an epidemic" or increase of intravenous drug use during the past couple of weeks, Milam said. "People out there are coming in with severe complications. We're afraid we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg."
Milam said a majority of the patients have developed staphylococcus infections, which occur when a germ that naturally lives on the skin is introduced to the bloodstream through the use of an unsanitized needle.
The patients have been presented with high fever, shortness of breath, stiff neck, high fevers and frozen joints, according to Milam. The bacteria attacks internal organs, including the heart, the spine, the joints and the brain, which can result in disfigurement, irreversible lifelong impairment and even death.
Milam said medical officials have noticed the trend steadily increase during the past three or four years, with an average of about one to two patients at the hospital suffering from such cases. The number of cases has continued to increase during the past few months and has significantly spiked during the past two weeks, according to Milam.
Law enforcement officers in Sarasota and Manatee counties say they have seen an increase in intravenous drug use during the past few years, particularly with the prescription drug OxyContin, which is a synthetic morphine.
OxyContin and methadone have become an alternative drug of choice on the streets when heroin cannot be purchased, according to law enforcement officials in Manatee County. They say many users buy OxyContin for $10 to $20 a pill, crush it, boil it and inject the concoction into their bloodstream with hypodermic needles.
Manatee County Sheriff's Office spokesman Randy Warren said the agency also has seen an increase in heroin use.
"We're finding that the clientele of people is a broader range of citizen - it's not just your so-called junkies using heroin," he said. "We're seeing more of it than we used to, and this is a concern for law enforcement because we're seeing a broader range of users."
There have been four confirmed heroin-related deaths in Manatee and Sarasota counties this year. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there were only three heroin deaths in all of Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties in 2002.
Milam did not specify what intravenous drugs the patients had used because medical laws prohibit such disclosures to the media.
According to Milam, the trend of sharing needles among intravenous drug users has died down. But the health risks regarding intravenous drug use and needles remain intact.
"A lot of people don't appreciate how serious bacterial infections can be when they stick needles in their arms," Milam said. "If you're puncturing your skin every day, you're playing Russian roulette."