- More than half a dozen cases of flesh-eating bacteria have been linked to the Gulf of Mexico.
- Three of the cases were fatal.
- The bacteria that causes it thrives in warm, brackish water.
- Warmer water caused by climate change likely means there will be more cases.
More than half a dozen cases of flesh-eating bacteria, including three that were fatal, have been linked to the Gulf of Mexico in the past several months.
The Gulf’s water and surrounding bays, warm and rich in nutrients, are perfect homes for bacteria that can cause necrotizing fasciitis, the formal name for flesh-eating bacteria.
With climate change warming the world’s oceans, these infections will become more frequent and be found in a wider range of places, the authors of a report in the Annals of Internal Medicine said.
The culprit behind many of the cases is vibrio vulnificus, a naturally occurring bacteria in warm, brackish seawater. It can enter a person’s skin through a cut or a scrape. In healthy people, it typically causes a mild illness, according to the Florida Department of Health. However, in people with weakened immune systems, vibrio can lead to necrotizing fasciitis.
“Where you find it is in little breaks if people are nicking themselves while shaving, and if the bacteria is there it can take advantage of the opening. Mosquito bites. Minute abrasions can be a point of entry,” Dr. Gordon Dickinson, a staff physician at the Miami VA Healthcare System and professor of medicine at the University of Miami, told the Miami Herald.
In addition to entering through the skin, vibrio vulnificus can infect people when they eat contaminated raw shellfish, particularly oysters. The Florida Health Department reports there were 92 cases of vibrio vulnificus infections in 2017 and 2018 in the state. There were 20 deaths during that time. From 2008 through 2018, there were 108 deaths. The CDC estimates that vibrio vulnificus causes about 205 infections annually in the United States. About 1 in 7 people with a vibrio vulnificus wound infection dies, according to the CDC. (Group A Streptococcus, the bacteria that causes strep throat, is the most common cause of necrotizing fasciitis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but it doesn’t live in water.)
In the recent cases, the vibrio infection likely entered through a fish hook stick, a stubbed toe, a cut on a leg or some other break in the skin. Two of the victims reportedly didn’t actually enter the water.
Debra Mattix said her husband, Gary Evans, 56, had no noticeable wounds and he never got in the water during a camping trip to Magnolia Beach in Texas on July 4, according to KHOU.
“His hat fell off into the water a couple of times, and he picked it up, and you just laugh about it, and he put it back on his head, was that it?” Debra Mattix asked. “Was that the entryway then? I don’t know. Could it have been when he pulled the crab traps out of the water and the breeze, some of the water sprinkled on him then? But to say we floated out in the water, no. We never got in the water.”
The vibrio bacteria entered Evans’ bloodstream and his organs began to fail. Within four days, he was dead.
Dave Bennett of Memphis, Tennessee, died within 48 hours of visiting Destin Beach in Florida on July 5 and 6, WHBQ reported. He was at greater risk of infection because he was being treated for cancer.
“I don’t want to keep people from the beach. I love the beach, my dad loved the beach. That was his favorite place to go, but it’s not worth your life to go,” Cheryl Wiygul, Bennett’s daughter, said. “So, maybe you need to reschedule if you have a big cut or just had surgery, don’t go to the beach.“
The family of Lynn Fleming, who died with necrotizing fasciitis after cutting her leg on Florida’s Anna Maria Island in June also don’t want people to be frightened of going to the beach. Her son said he wants people to be much more aware of the possibility of infection.
“We are not discouraging people from spending time at the beach,” Wade Fleming told CNN. “We’ve met many people from Florida who said they’ve never heard of necrotizing fasciitis.”
“Maybe they should consider signs warning people about this at the beach,” Fleming said.
In addition to Evans, Bennett and Fleming, here are four other cases of flesh-eating bacteria that have occurred in or near the Gulf of Mexico:
April 20 — A man fishing off the coast of Palm Harbor, Florida, contracted the bacteria when a fish hook stuck his hand. Mike Walton, 51, of Ozona, Florida, needed surgery to save his arm, Bay News 9 reported.
May — Amy Barnes, 45, of Arcadia, Florida, told the Herald-Tribune she developed necrotizing fasciitis after visiting Siesta Key off of Sarasota. She said she had a scratch on her leg. Doctors at Sarasota Memorial Hospital diagnosed her with necrotizing fasciitis, she said.
June 9 — Kylei Brown, a 12-year-old girl from Indiana, was infected while wading on Pompano Beach during a vacation in Destin, Florida. Her mom said in a Facebook post she thinks the girl stubbed her toe and the bacteria attacked her right leg.
June 28 — Tyler King of Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, contracted a bacterial infection in his arm after he paddled across a brackish pool. He was treated with multiple antibiotics and released from the hospital.
In early July, the Florida Health Department released a statement saying, “Necrotizing fasciitis and severe infections with vibrio vulnificus are rare. These infections can be treated with antibiotics and sometimes require surgery to remove damaged tissue. Rapid diagnosis is the key to effective treatment and recovery.”
The statement added that healthy people “with a strong immune system who do not have fresh cuts, scrapes or breaks in the skin should be able to enjoy the water.”
Dr. Sally Alrabaa, an infectious disease specialist with USF Health and Tampa General Hospital, told the Tampa Bay Times that cases of necrotizing fasciitis are up only slightly this year, despite the number of recent reports.
“It’s by no means an epidemic but we are seeing more cases this year,” Alrabaa said. “As the water is getting warmer by a few degrees, the bacteria is flourishing for longer periods.”
Florida Gulf Coast University Biological Sciences Chair Clifford Renk told WBBH the Gulf is the perfect breeding ground for vibrio in the summer months.
“When the Gulf of Mexico gets above 85 degrees, then the number of bacteria increase in the Gulf,” Renk said.
Larry McKinney of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies told Forbes that Gulf Coast waters reached 85 degrees two months earlier than expected this year.
Vibrio vulnificus is also turning up in places it hasn’t existed before. The bacteria was rare in Delaware Bay, between New Jersey and Delaware, until five people became sick because of it in 2017 and 2018, the study in the Annals of Internal Medicine said.
Madeleine King, an assistant professor at the University of the Sciences and a co-author of the study, said she expects the bacteria to continue to migrate north as sea temperatures become warmer because of climate change, Philly Mag reported.
The Florida Health Department of Health and the CDC say symptoms of a vibrio vulnificus infection may include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain or fever. If necrotizing fasciitis develops, symptoms include a red or swollen area of skin that spreads quickly; severe pain, including pain beyond the area of the skin that is red or swollen, and fever. Later symptoms that may develop are ulcers, blisters, or black spots on the skin; changes in the color of the skin; pus or oozing from the infected area, dizziness, fatigue, and diarrhea or nausea.
The health agencies say the best way to prevent infections is to take care of any wounds you have before entering the water and quickly apply first aid to any blisters, scrapes or any break in the skin that happen at the beach.
Other tips include:
- Avoid walking, sitting, or swimming in Gulf or bay waters with open wounds.
- Properly clean and treat wounds after accidentally exposing a wound to Gulf or bay waters, getting injured while in the water or getting an injury while cleaning or handling seafood.
- Rinsing with fresh water after swimming can additionally reduce the risk of exposure.
- Seeking medical treatment immediately if you develop signs or symptoms of an infection (redness, swelling, fever, severe pain in area of red or swollen skin) near or around a wound.