DOH: No need for panic over a potentially deadly bacteria in Florida seawater


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Florida —This week, several media outlets published stories that contained inaccuracies about the safety of Florida’s beach water related to cases of Vibrio vulnificus infections.

Vibrio vulnificus is a potentially deadly bacteria. While it can destroy tissue, officials said it is not a flesh-eating disease, as some media outlets have stated.

Annually, the Florida Department of Health issues a release to remind Floridians of ways to protect themselves and minimize exposure to the naturally occurring bacterium found in warm, salt and brackish seawater.

In 2015, the department has reported eight cases of Vibrio vulnificus infections, which include two deaths. Areas of reported cases of Vibrio vulnificus in 2015 include, Marion (fatal), Brevard (fatal), Brevard (2), Duval, Pasco, Santa Rosa, and St. Lucie counties.

According to the Department, Vibrio vulnificus infections are rare.

Friday, the Department of Health and the CDC, provided Ocala Post with some important facts about Vibrio vulnificus.

The bacterium does not pose a risk to a normal healthy person who does not have open cuts, scratches, blisters, or other types of open wounds. Therefore, it is safe for a healthy person to swim in Florida’s coastal waters.

Vibrio vulnificus is a bacterium in the same family as those that cause cholera and Vibrio parahaemolyticus. It normally lives in warm seawater and is part of a group of vibrios that are called “halophilic” because they require salt.

According to the CDC, the bacteria could cause gastroenteritis and in rare cases it can lead to septicemia, or an infection of the blood. If the bacteria infects the body through an open wound, the injury can become necrotic and amputations may become necessary to save a person’s life.

Vulnificus can cause disease in those who eat contaminated seafood or have an open wound that is exposed to seawater. Among healthy people, ingestion of vulnificus can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.

In immunocompromised persons, particularly those with chronic liver disease, vulnificus can infect the bloodstream, causing a severe and life-threatening illness characterized by fever and chills, decreased blood pressure (septic shock), and blistering skin lesions. Vulnificus bloodstream infections are fatal about 50% of the time.

Vulnificus can cause an infection of the skin when open wounds are exposed to warm seawater; these infections may lead to skin breakdown and ulceration. Persons who are immunocompromised are at higher risk for invasion of the organism into the bloodstream and potentially fatal complications.

Although oysters can be harvested legally only from waters free from fecal contamination, even legally harvested oysters can be contaminated with vulnificus because the bacterium is naturally present in marine environments. Vulnificus does not alter the appearance, taste, or odor of oysters.

Florida’s beaches and water are safe to enjoy responsibly—risk of infection is minimal if you take proper precautions.

  • Avoid exposing open wounds to warm saltwater, brackish water or to raw shellfish
  • Wear protective clothing when handling raw shellfish
  • Cook shellfish thoroughly and avoid food contamination with juices from raw seafood
  • Eat shellfish promptly after cooking and refrigerate leftovers

Timely, voluntary reporting of vulnificus infections to CDC and to regional offices of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will help collaborative efforts to improve investigation of these infections. Regional FDA specialists with expert knowledge about shellfish assist state officials with tracebacks of shellfish and, when notified rapidly about cases, arez able to sample harvest waters to discover possible sources of infection and to close oyster beds when problems are identified. Ongoing research may help us to predict environmental or other factors that increase the chance that oysters carry pathogens.

Individuals who are immunocompromised, e.g chronic liver disease, kidney disease, or weakened immune system, should wear proper foot protection to prevent cuts and injury caused by rocks and shells on the beach.

The Florida Department of Health said that there is not cause for panic.

[Sources: Department of Health and the CDC]

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