If you are a beachgoer in Florida, then beware that the water you’re swimming in contains a rare, but potentially fatal bacteria called Vibrio vulnificus. So far this year, nine people have been infected by the bacteria and three have died from it. Cases have been reported across six different counties.
Last year, Florida saw 32 cases of infection statewide and a total of seven reported deaths. So far, deaths have occurred in Brevard County, Marion County, and Hillsborough County.
The bacteria is more commonly contracted from raw shellfish
Vibrio vulnificus is usually contracted by consuming raw shellfish. When ingested, it causes a variety of intestinal problems, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and death.
It’s also deadly when contracted through open wounds on the skin. The bacteria finds entry into the body through broken skin, making its way to the bloodstream. From there it can cause fever, chills, blistering skin lesions, a drop in blood pressure or septic shock, and often death.
“People can get infected with Vibrio vulnificus when they eat raw shellfish,” explained Florida Health Department spokeswoman Mara Burger in a statement. “Since it is naturally found in warm marine waters, people with open wounds can be exposed to Vibrio vulnificus through direct contact with seawater.”
A rare infection but with serious and deadly consequences
Infections from Vibrio vulnificus are fatal in 50 percent of cases. For people who have compromised immune systems or other pre-existing medical conditions, they are at an 80 times higher risk for developing bloodstream infections.
Complications for Vibrio vulnificus skin infections can sometimes have difficulty healing. In some cases, it can require surgery and possibly amputation.
The Vibrio vulnificus bacteria thrive in warm coastal waters, particularly during the summer months. It also thrives in warm lakes and rivers, though most cases seem to occur in states along the Gulf Coast. When salt and fresh water become mixed into brackish water, you tend to find the largest populations of the Vibrio bacteria.
“Much of Florida had early season heat during April and May, which helped to push water temperatures to warm levels early on this season,” explained AccuWeather meteorologist Alex Sosnowski. “Since the weather pattern will remain quite warm through the summer and early autumn, water temperatures will likely remain at sufficient warm levels to sustain the Vibrio vulnificus for an extended period.”
Simple ways to protect yourself
While infections by Vibrio vulnificus are rare, and people with healthy immune systems are generally safe, there are some smart precautions you can take.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Florida Department of Health advises the following precautions:
· Do not eat raw oysters or other raw shellfish.
· Wear protective clothing (e.g. gloves) when handling raw shellfish.
· Cook shellfish (oysters, clams, mussels) thoroughly.
· Eat shellfish promptly after cooking and refrigerate leftovers.
· Avoid exposure of open wounds or broken skin to warm salt or brackish water, or to raw shellfish harvested from such waters.
· Individuals who are immunocompromised should wear proper foot protection to prevent cuts and injury caused by rocks and shells on the beach.
Most people with a healthy immune system may be able to avoid infection, but it pays to avoid unnecessary risk. Avoid raw or undercooked shellfish, and stay out of the ocean water if you have cuts, scrapes, or other areas of broken skin.
—The Alternative Daily