BLACK TAR HEROIN USERS HIT BY `FLESH-EATING'-TYPE DISEASE.
Mexican black tar heroin is blamed for an illness similar to the so-called ``flesh-eating bacteria'' that has been diagnosed in more than two dozen San Francisco Bay Area drug users.
Two people have died and others have undergone surgeries to remove massive amounts of tissue from their bodies, including the amputation of one Contra Costa County woman's hand.
Mexican black tar heroin is the most commonly sold form of the drug in the Western United States and also one of the most impure.
``We don't know why black tar heroin,'' said Dr. James Watt of the San Francisco Public Health Department. ``It could be the way the drug is prepared. It could also be something that is inherent in the heroin.''
Health officials are reluctant to say that the recent illnesses are in fact the ``flesh-eating bacteria,'' a fast-acting strain of a common and usually benign germ, Group A streptococcus, that can penetrate the body and destroy tissue.
But health officials say the infections resemble the ``flesh-eating bacteria,'' especially the destruction of skin and muscle tissue. The bacteria appears to be just one of the germs responsible for the current surge of infections among heroin users.
Some other contaminant may be in the heroin that allows germs in the body, needle or environment to take hold, said Dr. Mark Wille, chief of internal medicine at Contra Costa County's Merrithew Memorial Hospital.
The disease becomes a risk only after it is introduced through injection. The symptoms include redness, pain or swelling at the injection site and fever or chills.
The infection appears to fester for a day or two, creating a painful, red and swollen abscess. Such abscesses are common among drug users and are usually not serious.
But the more dangerous variety starts the same way and then rapidly spreads along the body's connective tissue, doctors say.
If unchecked, the disease spreads throughout the body and turns lethal.
The infections, so far, have appeared only in people who inject black tar heroin under their skin or into their muscles.