Warm weather heralds arrival of flesh-eating bacteria in coastal water: With summer in full swing, beaches and shellfish are order of the day. But there is a health risk hiding in warm coastal waters that can have serious consequences.

With the arrival of summer, many people head to the beaches to cool off and enjoy fun in the sun. But there may be a danger lurking in those tepid waters that can pose a serious health risk.

Vibrio vulnificus is a halophilic (salt-loving) bacterium usually found in the sea. The bacteria thrive in warmer waters and hence in the months of May to October there is a spike in infectious incidents. An infection caused by V. vulnificus can lead to gastroenteritis, sepsis, amputation and if untreated to death.

Vibrio vulnificus is grouped by the Center for Disease Control in the same class of bacteria, which cause cholera. If left untreated, it can cause necrosis of the flesh hence it is termed the flesh-eating bacteria. The CDC reports that on an average there are 95 cases nationwide each year with 35 deaths. According to a state official, seven cases have been reported in Florida while there have been two deaths so far, in this year.

There are two ways of getting infected by V. vulnificus: it can either enter the blood stream through a wound or by consumption of raw seafood such as oysters which may be contaminated by the bacteria. Ingesting the bacteria can lead to gastroenteritis (abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea) and in very extreme cases, to an infection of the blood, septicemia. Open wounds or sores coming into direct contact with seawater run a high risk of Vibrio vulnificus infection. When infected, the skin tissues can start decaying in a process known as necrosis and amputation has to be done to save the patient’s life.

Usually people who are immune comprised or have weakened immune systems due to disease are at higher risk of infection from Vibrio vulnificus. Bloodstream infections of V. vulnificus are fatal 50% of the time. However people who recover successfully after an infection suffer no lifelong consequences. Proper diagnosis and treatment are instrumental in preventing fatality.

Oyster harvesting is legally done only in waters, which are free of fecal contamination. But as the bacteria are naturally present in the sea, even safely harvested oysters can be contaminated with it. It is difficult to know which oysters are contaminated and which are not as the bacteria does not change the smell, taste or appearance of the oysters.

Some of the steps outlined by the CDC that can be taken to prevent an infection by V. vulnificus are as follows:

  • Cooking shellfish (clams, mussels and oysters) thoroughly before consuming them
  • Handling raw shellfish with protective clothing (gloves)
  • Avoid exposing broken skin or open wounds to warm sea water or raw shellfish harvested from these waters
  • Avoiding cross-contamination of cooked seafood with raw seafood or juices of it.
  • Refrain from eating raw clams, mussels or oysters. Boil, fry or steam shellfish until the shell opens. Do not eat them if shell remains closed.