A potentially deadly illness striking victims in Britain and the United
States is caused by bacteria triggering a violent immune system response, a
University of Tennessee scientist said Tuesday.

British tabloids call the disease ''meat-eating'' because it targets flesh
and muscle tissue. Eleven victims in Britain have died since Jan. 1.

But Dr. Malak Kotb, director of surgical immunology at the UT-Memphis
Medical Center and the Veterans Administration Hospital, said British
newspapers overreacted to the illness which she said does not threaten the
general population.

Kotb said UT-Memphis, collaborating with clinicians in Idaho and Toronto,
examined blood cells of affected patients and determined that the bacteria
cause tissue damage and the immune system to overreact.

''We have isolated (identified) in our laboratory in Memphis a new kind of
superantigen -- a toxin -- that is causing this illness, known as
streptococcal toxic shock syndrome,'' Kotb said.

People exposed to the superantigen react differently to it, she said.

''Each person's immune system is different. And the way the immune system
flares up, and how that person can regulate such a flare-up, varies
drastically from one person to another,'' Kotb said.

''The same bacteria can go into one person and cause nothing, go into
another person and cause this devastating disease, and only mild disease in
a third person.

"People who experience severe pain and fever following a wound infection or
a sore throat should see a doctor because once the cascade starts, it is
very difficult to control,'' she said.

Kotb said the bacteria produce toxins which are very powerful stimulators
of the immune system ''and can lead to the overproduction of inflammatory
mediators which can cause tissue destruction and death.''

Superantigens are produced by the streptococcus bacteria and by a virus
living within the bacteria, Kotb said. The bacteria do not directly cause
the destruction of human flesh, she said.

''The overstimulation of the human immune system in response to
superantigens and other bacterial virulence factors is responsible for the
tissue destruction,'' Kotb said.

The UT-Memphis laboratory and others throughout the nation now will focus
on finding a way to control the body's reaction to the bacteria-induced
superantigens, she said.

Kotb agreed with Dr. James Hadler, chief epidemiologist for the state of
Connecticut, that people should not panic because of the illness. The World
Health Organization said there is no reason to fear a global outbreak of
the illness.

Dr. Edward Kaplan, director of a WHO laboratory at the University of
Minnesota, said infectious diseases ''run in cycles.''

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 500 to 1,500 such
infections occur each year in the United States.