Five people have died so far this year in the Tampa Bay area because of a flesh-eating bacterium known found in the water at popular swimming beaches, officials at the Florida Department of Health have reported.
According to Florida Health, the vibrio vulnificus bacterium is usually found in warm, brackish seawater because it requires salt to live and bacteria typically grow more quickly in warmer months.
Infections are relatively rare, but health officials say those with open wounds, cuts or scrapes should stay out of the water.
Five people have died this year from reported bacterial infections, including two in Hilllsborough County and one each in Pasco, Polk and Sarasota counties.
There have been 26 reported cases of vibrio vulnificus infections in Florida since January, officials said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some Vibrio vulnificus infections lead to necrotizing fasciitis, a severe infection in which the flesh around an open wound dies. Necrotizing fasciitis can be caused by more than one type of bacteria.
People with open wounds, cuts or scratches can be exposed to the bacterium through direct contact with the mixture of fresh and seawater.
Vibrio vulnificus can cause an infection of the skin which may lead to skin breakdown and ulcers.
While anyone can get a Vibrio vulnificus infection, the infections can be more severe for people with weakened immune systems or poor general health.
The bacterium can invade the bloodstream, causing a severe life-threatening illness with symptoms including fever, chills, decreased blood pressure and blistering skin lesions.
It has the potential to cause severe illness or death; the CDC says about one in five people die sometimes within a day or two of becoming ill.
Vibrio vulnificus can also cause disease in people who eat raw or undercooked oysters and shellfish.
It is not transmitted from person to person, but people who are experiencing symptoms should seek medical attention immediately.
Dr. Eric Shamas, an emergency medicine physician at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, told local news channel WFLA: ‘Living in Florida, being around the marine environment, we need to be aware of what it is.
‘Whenever you have a break in the skin and you’re in a marine environment then theoretically you’re at risk.
‘It’s very important to keep in mind these severe infections are very rare.’
He added: ‘If you have wounds, maybe stay out of the water. If you suffer a cut while in the water, just wash it out very thoroughly with soap and water. Monitor your symptoms and follow up with your doctor if you have any questions.’
Sources: Florida Department of Health, Daily Mail, New York Post.