Recently a leprosy outbreak was reported in Florida, and last week national headlines blame a flesh-eating bacterium for five deaths in the Sunshine State.
According to the Florida Department of Health (FDOH), there are 26 reported cases of the flesh-eating disease, which includes the five deaths, in 17 of the state’s 67 counties between Jan. 1 and Aug. 21.
The official name of the bacteria is vibrio vulnificus, which is found in warm, brackish water.
People can become contaminated if coming into contact with the bacteria in brackish as well as stagnant water if they have lesions on their skin or by eating improperly stored shellfish, such as oysters, according to FDOH Press Secretary Jae Williams.
Williams explained the bacteria works from the inside out – it needs to enter the bloodstream to spread. The most common way it is spread is through a skin lesion contacting contaminated water or consuming contaminated shellfish.
If not diagnosed and treated quickly, the bacteria can cause organ failure which leads to death, usually between seven to 14 days after infection. Treatment consists of antibiotic therapy. Williams said initial symptoms may appear four to five days after contamination, with flu-like symptoms including abdominal pain, very high fever, inflamed skin and vomiting.
“It’s critically important to see a doctor,” he said. “It’s a really bad bacteria to catch and very easy to avoid.”
Williams said if someone discovers a wound on skin after exposure to infected water to scrape it off, wrap the wound tightly and apply disinfectant as soon as possible. Seeking medical attention to rule out infection is recommended.
The recent reports in Florida are typical numbers of infections in any year, as it is common in the state. Most native Floridians know the dangers of contracting it if swimming or wading in contaminated water or consuming poorly prepared shellfish as much as they know and understand blue-green algae blooms, red tides and even watching out for alligators.
“Vibrio is not new to Florida and Florida is not seeing an uptick of it,” he said. “Every year there are deaths due to vibrio.”
In 2021 there were 34 reported cases of vibrio including 10 deaths and in 2022 numbers jumped to 74 cases inluding 17 deaths. The higher incidences were due to the slow-moving Hurricane Ian which kept people in dire conditions for unusually long periods and historic storm surges which included brackish water, flooding, storm debris, sewage and materials from failed septic tanks.
Newbies and travelers may not be aware of the potential dangers, and for that reason Williams urges everyone to take precautions.
First and foremost, don’t wade or swim in stagnant water and make sure shellfish has been properly stored and prepared.
Williams said it is safe to swim in the ocean and the coast and even in Lake Okeechobee (just watch out for alligators!) It is the brackish water that can create the most risk.
For more information visit the FDOH website at https://www.floridahealth.gov/diseases-and-conditions/vibrio-infections/vibrio-vulnificus/index.html