Florida health officials have alerted citizens of its waters harboring flesh-eating bacteria. In the past month, two people have contracted the bacteria, leaving one dead. Although both victims had pre-existing conditions, the bacteria got into their system through open injuries. 41 cases were reported across the state in 2014 alone.
The scientific name of the bacteria is Vibrio vulnificus. The bacteria thrive in warm salt waters due to their requiring salt for growth. It is in the family of one of the most common organisms in surface waters of the world, with some bacteria in its class being bioluminescent. It has a 50 percent fatality rate when absorbed into the body through open wounds. It also lives in shellfish such as oysters, which filter bacteria from the water. These bacteria can also be found in crabs.
This poses an immediate threat to people who eat shellfish raw, especially those with weakened immune systems and those over the age of 60. The infection disproportionately affects males. 11 of the 41 cases reported in Florida have stemmed from people having either open wounds or eating raw shellfish. Something as small as an ant bite can serve as an entry point for the bacteria. Symptoms include vomiting and diarrhea if the bacteria are ingested, and ulcers, redness and swelling of the skin.
The flesh-eating bacteria has also surfaced in the coastal waters of the Chesapeake Bay. In 2013, the total number of cases in Maryland were 57, which was the highest number seen in 10 years. The bacteria have also been found on the East Coast as far north as Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It also encompasses the entire West Coast. Florida is not the only state whose waters are harboring the flesh-eating bacteria.
Vibrio vulnificus (V.vulnificus) is a bacterium in the same class as the bacteria that cause cholera. In healthy people, when the bacteria are ingested, they cause vomiting, diarrhea and pain in the abdomen. However, when people with weakened immune systems, such as those suffering from chronic liver disease, have the bacteria enter their system, it can infect the bloodstream. This causes fever and chills, lower blood pressure and skin lesions.
Those with cancer, immune disorders such as HIV, kidney disease, and who have been using steroids for a long time are 80 to 200 times more likely to develop the infection. These people are at a much greater risk, with the infection carrying a high mortality rate.Vibrio vulnificus infection can be diagnosed by stool, wound and blood samples. The infection can be treated with antibiotics, and at the site of the infection. Amputation is sometimes necessary. People who recover from the illness should not expect any long-term effects from the bacteria.
Although the media has given attention to Florida waters harboring the flesh-eating bacteria, Florida is not alone. Today 33 states routinely report cases of the infection, and the Gulf Coast states have been monitoring the waters through using the Cholera and other Vibrio Illness Surveillance System (COVIS) since 1988. The bacterial infections fluctuate with the seasons; with over 85 percent of cases occurring between May and October due to the growth of the bacteria in warm water. Between 1988 and 1995, the Centers for Disease Control received reports of over 300 V. vulnificus infections from the Gulf states.
By Adrianne Hill