He has treated more than a thousand patients both in Australia and abroad for the disease. Many of them are older in Australia, but others are also young teachers, laborers and children.
He measures his wounds gently with a ruler, marking them to track their progress. Although they look like nightmares – some have ulcers that eat all the way to the bone – most patients describe them as painless. Meat-eating toxin produced by bacteria presents a peculiar horror: it both weakens the immune response and numbs the meat-taker. It is “quite an extraordinary creature, indeed,” Dr. O’Brien said of the bacterium, “and a formidable enemy.”
In Mr. Courtney’s case, the ulcer had ravaged the top half of his leg, as long as doctors could give a diagnosis. They have since undergone surgery to remove necrotic, concrete-like tissue. “Until you get rid of that dead flesh, the skin will never heal,” Dr. Said Adrian Murry, a physician at the clinic who is treating Mr. Courtney.
Other patients with less severe cases sometimes decline treatment rather than opting for natural remedies such as heat and mud. Although the body can sometimes fight off small ulcers, such treatments can pose a real danger in severe cases, Dr. O’Brien said.
In most cases, the course of treatment is antibiotics. Previously, the disease was treated to a large extent by surgery, but with better medicines, the diagnosis has improved to a great extent in recent years. “It was thought that antibiotics did not work,” Dr. O Brian said. “Because it gets really bad before it gets better.”
Still, for now, prevention is near impossible.
“We don’t know how to stop it,” he said. But if the answer is to be found anywhere, he said, it is in Australia.
For Mr. Courtney, his battle with the disease is over. Doctors expect her treatment to last at least six months.