Why is a flesh-eating bug spreading through Victoria’s pristine, seaside towns?

Photo credit: Julian Kingma

Published in the Weekend Australian Magazine, June 2018

It’s the orange tears Erin Boorèr remembers most, and the way her two year-old son Mitch would knock the gaping wound on his shin and scream in pain as it gushed blood. The orange tears were a side effect of the drugs used to treat the flesh-eating bacteria that was slowly devouring his leg, causing it to swell so much it looked like it would burst his foot out of his tiny shoe.

He recovered. Doctors eventually cut out the strange ulcer that had so potently pockmarked the young Melbourne boy’s life, removing most of the infected tissue and covering the chasm with skin grafted from his calf. He had to learn to walk again. Not many parents get to see their child’s first steps twice. That was 2012. Six years later he’s playing his first season of rugby league for the Frankston Raiders Under 8s. He wears number 29 on his back, and under his sock a discreet shin pad.

Mitch calls it his croc bite – a heroic battle wound sounds a bit more exciting than a brush with a microscopic organism. Truth be told, Mitch is sick of talking about it. Sick of the stares and the questions and the people gawking like he’s an alien. He’s sick of a disease defining his life. On the first day of school every year his teacher always clears the air early. “Stand up, Mitch. Show everyone your leg and tell them the story.”

But Mitch doesn’t have a story, not a complete one. That’s still being written. Doctors don’t know how or why Mitch caught the disease, or why so many other people are falling to it. “That’s what I hate about it,” says Erin. “We can’t tell Mitch what happened. I can’t say to him, ‘this happened to you.’ Because we just don’t know.”

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