florida flesh eating bacteria

According to media reports Saturday, a rare and potentially deadly bacteria that lives in warm seawater has infected seven people and killed two so far this year in Florida, according to state health officials.

“People can get infected with Vibrio vulnificus when they eat raw shellfish,” Florida Health Department spokeswoman Mara Burger said 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.”

ABC, reports, when the bacterium is eaten in contaminated food, symptoms of the disease include vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. When Vibrio vulnificus enters the body through an open wound, it can cause infections that may lead to skin breakdown and ulcers — the notorious “flesh-eating” symptoms.

While healthy people typically experience only mild symptoms, those with a weakened immune system, particularly people living with chronic liver disease, are at a higher risk for severe complications. The bacterium can invade the bloodstream and cause fever, chills, blistering skin lesions, septic shock, and death.

Cases of the backeria are rare – there were 32 cases reported in Florida last year – and infections are seasonal. Over 85 percent occur between May and October, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To avoid infection from Vibrio vulnificus, experts recommend not entering the water if you have fresh cuts or scrapes. People with a compromised immune system should take extra precautions by wearing proper foot protection to prevent cuts caused by rocks and shells on the beach.

It is recommended to avoid raw shellfish, including oysters, clams, and mussels.

Most cases of Vibrio vulnificus are treated with antibiotics. In some severe cases, amputation of the infected limb is necessary.

Dr. James Oliver, a professor of biology at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, has studied vibrio vulnificus for decades. He said that while Florida has the most cases of vibrio infection because of the warm ocean water that surrounds the state, the bacteria are found worldwide. “It’s normal flora in the water,” he said. “It belongs there.”

The vast majority of people who are exposed to the bacteria don’t get sick, he said. A few people become ill but recover.

Only a fraction of people are violently ill, and fewer still die; Oliver said many of those people ingest tainted, raw shellfish.

Oliver and Florida Department of Health officials say people shouldn’t be afraid of going into Florida’s waters, but that those with suppressed immune systems, such as people who have cancer, diabetes or cirrhosis of the liver, should be aware of the potential hazards of vibrio vulnificus, especially if they have an open wound.