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Gas Gangrene (Clostridial Myonecrosis)

Background

Gas gangrene and clostridial myonecrosis are interchangeable terms used to describe an infection of muscle tissue by toxin-producing clostridia. In 1861, Louis Pasteur identified the first clostridial species, Clostridium butyricum. In 1892 and later, Welch, Nuttall, and other scientists isolated a gram-positive anaerobic bacillus from gangrenous wounds. This organism, originally known as Bacillus aerogenes capsulatus, was later renamed Bacillus perfringens, and then Clostridium welchii. The organism is now named Clostridium perfringens.

Gas gangrene gained recognition for its wartime incidence, during which only a paucity of civilian cases occurred. During World War I, gas gangrene complicated 6% of open fractures and 1% of all open wounds. These figures steadily decreased to 0.7% during World War II, 0.2% during the Korean War, and 0.002% during the Vietnam War. No cases of gas gangrene were reported during the battle in the Falkland Islands in 1982.

Despite numerous casualties caused by enormous firepower and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), no cases of gas gangrene have been reported among US soldiers during the ongoing operation Iraqi Freedom. The lethality of war wounds has decreased from 24% during operation Desert Storm (1991) to an unprecedented 10% during operation Iraqi Freedom. The US military medicine has credited this to the mobility of the forward surgical teams (FSTs) in keeping up with the fast-moving military units.

The incidence of gas gangrene was 0.96% in a study of 1970 survivors admitted to Sichuan Provincial People’s Hospital after the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.
Another study of 226 patients during the same earthquake showed the importance of rapid and accurate screening, as well as isolation, in the successful treatment of gas gangrene and in helping to prevent nosocomial diffusion. Debridement, amputation, and supportive treatment yielded acceptable therapeutic results.

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