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Zip line adventures in Costa Rica and the risk of flesh-eating bacteria

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Canopy tours and zip line adventures have become iconic among visitors to Costa Rica. They are a great way to explore our forests and they boast a great safety record, but a recent zip line-related tragedy in the United States has some tourists wondering about secondary dangers of canopy tours.

The case of a young woman in the southern state of Georgia, who is currently being treated for a flesh-eating bacteria infection, brings to mind just how delicate human and animal species can be when bacteria like Aeromonas hydrophila turns to disease.

Aimee Copeland has been in the hospital for almost two weeks after a zip line accident that turned very tragic. She suffered a cut on her left leg when the line she was riding snapped and she fell. Aimee was treated by medical professionals who cleaned her deep cut and closed it with staples. She then contracted necrotizing fasciitis, commonly referred to as flesh-eating bacteria disease.

Miss Copeland has had her left leg amputated and part of her stomach removed. Physicians in charge of her recovery think that her fingers may need to be amputated as well. She is currently on a ventilator and heavily sedated. According to the medical editor at American TV media bureau ABC News, what happened to this young woman boils down to a “perfect storm” of unfortunate factors. Necrotizing fasciitis caused by bacterial infection is extremely rare, but often deadly.

The Aeromonas hydrophila bacterium can be found in various parts of Costa Rica. A 1989 research study by microbiologists from the University of Costa Rica revealed the following information about seven strains of the bacteria collected in Nicoya:

“[they] showed the biochemical characteristics associated with toxin production. These species are widely distributed in the gulf and there is risk of contracting an infection while bathing or when eating raw bivalves (like oysters) from this area.”

This bacterium, or a strain thereof, is also suspected to be behind sudden declines in amphibian populations, and it may have taken away Bufo periglenes, the extinct Golden Toad of Monteverde. The presence of this bacterium in rural water supplies is also suspected of causing gastroentirities.

The likelihood of Aeromonas hydrophila being present at zip line and canopy tours sites in Costa Rica is reasonably high. The likelihood of it causing a deadly infection is negligible. According to a note on the Village Voice -quoting reports from the Associated Press and National Public Radio in the United States- such infections almost never happen. Still, common sense mandates that people with deep cuts should not enter brackish or fresh water -and if by accident they do so, then they should seek medical attention.

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