Last week, reports broke that a Sydney University Football Club player had contracted a rare, life-threatening bacteria during a game on campus. Henry Clunies-Ross’ right leg became infected with necrotising fasciitis: a flesh-eating bacteria that tears through the skin, tissue and fat above muscles. Although the incident occurred approximately a month ago, neither the University nor Sydney Uni Sport and Fitness (SUSF) have released a health notice — so does the bug continue pose a threat to others?
Clunies-Ross, who also plays for the Australian sevens team, sliced his leg on part of the goal post on Sydney Uni’s Football Ground, more commonly known as Oval No. 2. The cut came into contact with the necrotising fasciitis bacteria, which may have lain dormant on the field’s turf, during a tackle.
“[My] shin didn’t feel normal,” Clunies-Ross told the Sydney Morning Herald. “I looked down at it and that’s when I saw a big flap of skin hanging off, a pretty nasty cut.”
Clunies-Ross was taken to the hospital after the game and received over 100 stitches. After he returned home, the wound festered overnight as the bug began eroding his leg tissue. Clunies-Ross recovered after rigorous medical attention at RPA Hospital, where staff were able to save his leg. His treatment involved a string of operations, a “nuclear bomb of antibiotics” and hyperbaric pressure chambers, he told the SMH.
Despite what its nickname suggests, the bacterium doesn’t actually ‘eat’ flesh. Instead, after entering via cuts and abrasions, it releases toxins that wear away the exposed skin area.
Necrotising fasciitis is characterised by red boils that erupt, shedding pus and skin particles. Those infected can be sent into septic shock, or require amputations. It is estimated that approximately 400 Australians are reported to have it each year, and despite its rarity, one in four cases are fatal.
There are two main bacterium species: streptococcus pyogenes and pseudomonas aeruginosa. Dr Jim Manos, a Senior Lecturer in Infectious Diseases, speculates that Clunies-Ross could have contracted his bacterium from another player.
“The most likely way that it ended up on the turf is that a player was infected at some point prior to the game and […] was shedding bacteria from a small wound that had not been treated (or may have been ignored),” says Dr Manos.
“Cuts and abrasions in another player could have become exposed to this material during the game, either by direct contact with the previously infected person, or if they hit the ground in an area where the skin was shed and their cut or other mucous membrane (e.g. the mouth, nose) came into contact with it.”
Due to a broad days-to-months survival period, it is unclear how long the necrotising fasciitis was opportunistically waiting. “Both [streptococcus pyogenes and pseudomonas aeruginosa] can generally survive from days to months,” explains Dr Manos. While needing a specific environment to reactivate, some dormant bacteria spores can last for decades. Unlike concrete or asphalt, turf would better harbour the bacterium due to its moisture levels and protection from the elements in crevices.
There is a chance the flesh-eating bacteria is still present on the oval. Like all bacteria, necrotising fasciitis is microscopic, making it hard to locate and remove with disinfectants. Similarly, after outgrowing its nutrient source, biofilms (a slime layer which protects bacteria communities that allow them to rapidly grow) can fragment and be carried over by wind or rain to new locations for recolonisation.
“There is not much that can be done in terms of maintenance of the turf, as it would be impossible to eradicate without knowing precisely where the colonies [or] biofilms are,” he says.
That being said, Dr Manos does not expect the bug to populate the entire oval, due to regular disturbances from games and mowers.
Given Clunies-Ross’ unfortunate yet specific circumstance of contraction, others on campus are most likely safe from the bug. However, Dr Manos recommends those playing on the oval to remain vigilant about the state of their skin, and speak to a medical professional if an injury does not heal or becomes inflamed.
When asked what role it would play in preventing future cases or raising awareness for local and guest players, SUSF did not provide comment to Honi.
An investigation into the incident, including verifying the source of the bacteria, is currently underway. In a joint statement to the SMH, both SUSF and USyd’s Football Club emphasised player prioritisation.
“We are always very concerned for the health and well-being of all our athletes,” they said.
Note: This article was amended on Thursday 9 May at 9.49am to reflect that Clunies-Ross returned home before going to the hospital for the second time, and to reflect that the bacteria source is not yet conclusive.