What to Know About the Deadly Flesh-Eating Bacteria and Signs You Have It
Florida residents are not only dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, but a rare flesh-eating bacteria has surfaced, which prompted the Florida Department of Health to issue a warning. Lee County has seen an "abnormal increase" amount of cases, according to the health department and the state so far has 64 Vibrio vulnificus infections and 13 deaths this year. CNN reports, "This is the first time the number of cases has gone above 50 since 2008, when the state started keeping track."
While the flesh-eating bacteria is uncommon, it can be deadly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Vibriosis causes an estimated 80,000 illnesses and 100 deaths in the United States every year. People with vibriosis become infected by consuming raw or undercooked seafood or exposing a wound to seawater. Most infections occur from May through October when water temperatures are warmer."
At the end of September, Hurricane Ian made landfall as a Category 4 storm with 150-mph winds in Florida and was the deadliest hurricane to strike the state since 1935, killing over 100 people–the death toll is expected to increase, and causing widespread destruction. RMS, "estimates total private market insured losses from Hurricane Ian to be between US$53 billion and US$74 billion, with the best estimate of US$67 billion. RMS also estimates the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) could see an additional US$10 billion in losses from storm surge and inland flooding as a result of the event."Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.
Why Vibrio Vulnificu Cases Rose After Hurricane Ian
Dr. Suman Radhakrishna, Director of Infectious Disease with Dignity Health California Hospital explains, "Hurricanes cause rise in coastal waters. Vibrio vulnificus is found in estuaries, brackish ponds and coastal waters. Growth of bacteria is high in warm summer months. People wading in these standing flood waters are at risk for infection."
Oladele Ogunseitan, PhD, MPH, University of California Presidential Chair, Professor, Population Health and Disease Prevention tells us, "The hurricane cannot "cause" flesh-eating bacteria. However, the hurricane can create conditions under which the bacteria come into contact with people. These bacteria exist naturally in nature, and severe weather, including hurricane may cause overflow of sewage treatment facilities and a lot of mixing of the water ecosystem that they are dispersed to locations where people are exposed and subsequently infected, particularly if they have open wounds, or go wading in contaminated stormwater where they may ingest water."
What to Know About Vibrio Vulnificus
According to Dr. Radhakrishna, "Flesh-eating bacteria by definition will destroy tissue, muscle under an infected area of skin. Vibrio vulnificus, Group A Streptococcus are some of the bacteria that can cause extensive destruction at site of infection. Vibrio vulnificus infects breaks in skin due to cuts, scratches and open wounds. In the immunocompromised patients it can cause severe damage."
Dr. Ogunseitan says, "Many Vibrio species are dangerous for people. The most notorious is of course Vibrio cholera which remains very dangerous in many parts of the world where water sanitation is poor. However, Vibrio vulnificus can cause relatively mild food and water-borne disease in people. The problem is when it infects open wounds in immunocompromised people who are not able to fight off the infection."
Vibrio Vulnificus Symptoms
Dr. Ogunseitan shares, "Most bacterial infections will cause fever which is the body's natural defense process. So, fever accompanied by infected wounds that are swollen and filled with pus, and not cleaning with topical antibiotic application should raise alarm."
Dr. Radhakrishna tells us, "Signs of infection can be the following:
- Local – at the site of infection individuals may experience pain, redness, drainage, swelling, warmth.
- Systemic symptoms include fever, chills, prostration due to low blood pressure.
- Ingestion of bacteria causes food poisoning symptoms – abdominal cramps, nausea/vomiting, diarrhea."
The CDC states, "When ingested, Vibrio bacteria can cause watery diarrhea, often accompanied by abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever, and chills. Usually these symptoms occur within 24 hours of ingestion and last about 3 days. Severe illness is rare and typically occurs in people with a weakened immune system. Vibrio bacteria can also cause a skin infection when an open wound is exposed to salt water or brackish water. Brackish water is a mixture of fresh and salt water. It is often found where rivers meet the sea."
How Vibrio Vulnificus Infections Happen
Dr. Ogunseitan says that infections can happen, "Mostly by wading in dirty water with open wounds, or ingesting or snorting contaminated water." Dr. Radhakrishna agrees and says, it's likely to get the bacteria from "Infected water contaminating open wounds, ingestion of contaminated water. Avoid wading in brackish water, especially if you are immunocompromised or have cuts/scratches. Avoid accidental ingestion of water. wear protective gear while helping with salvage, check for wounds at the end of each workday and monitor closely. Please contact your doctor if any change is noted."
NPR reports, "Vibrio vulnificus infections can be caused by eating undercooked oysters and shellfish. But in the aftermath of a hurricane, infections typically start when open wounds, cuts or scratches come into direct contact with warm brackish water. Skin breakdowns and ulcers follow."
Vibrio Vulnificus Can Be Fatal, But Not Usually
According to Dr. Ogunseitan, Vibrio vulnificus is not usually fatal, but it is extremely dangerous for people with weak immune systems. The sooner the infection is diagnosed the better the prognosis. Antibiotics are the best therapy. This is why we really have to protect the effectiveness of antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance is a serious problem for public health, particularly in cases such as emerging pathogens that may become more dangerous with climate change, including Vibrio vulnificus."
Dr. Radhakrishna adds, "Fatality rate in immunocompromised individuals can be as high as 25 % with wound infection. Fatality is higher in individuals with shock and organ failure. Treatment includes early recognition of infection, local control and systemic antibiotics."