A concerning outbreak of a rare flesh-eating bacteria is wreaking havoc across the United States. Five fatalities have already occurred in Tampa, Florida, while three more individuals succumbed to this deadly bacteria in Connecticut and New York.
Vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium found in raw or undercooked seafood, saltwater and brackish water, has been responsible for these deaths. New York Governor Kathy Hochul also reported its presence in a person who died on Long Island. Hochul (D) emphasised the gravity of the situation in a press statement; “While rare, the Vibrio bacteria has unfortunately reached this region and can be extraordinarily dangerous.” Adam Joseph, a spokesperson for Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont (D), echoed these concerns, urging residents to be cautious when consuming raw oysters and encountering salt or brackish water.
In light of the situation, authorities and experts are emphasising the importance of following crucial precautions that will prevent Vibrio vulnificus infections. They advise protecting open wounds from seawater exposure and avoiding the consumption of raw or undercooked shellfish. In a statement to The Guardian, the Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH) revealed that two individuals who contracted vibriosis and subsequently died were in the Connecticut waters of the Long Island Sound, although in separate locations. Both individuals had pre-existing open cuts or wounds or sustained new injuries that likely led to the infections.
The Connecticut DPH disclosed that, since July 1, three cases of vibriosis had been reported, with the affected patients aged between 60 and 80 years old, including the two fatalities. Notably, one patient reported consuming raw oysters from a rickety establishment. It’s worth mentioning that five cases of Vibrio vulnificus infections were reported in Connecticut in 2020, with none recorded in 2021 and 2022. The DPH warned that those who contract a Vibrio vulnificus infection can become seriously ill and may even require limb amputation, with approximately one in five patients losing their lives to the infection.
Sounds scary? Well, here’s everything you need to know about the rare flesh-eating bacteria and ways of protecting yourself.
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What is Vibrio vulnificus?
Vibrio vulnificus is a bacterium that can cause sepsis, severe wound infections and gastrointestinal distress, according to the medical journal StatPearls. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) first identified it as a disease-causing agent in 1976.
Vibriosis, caused by several species of bacteria, including Vibrio vulnificus, is naturally found in saltwater coastal environments. Most infections occur between May and October when warmer weather prevails, according to New York state health officials.
Many individuals infected with Vibrio vulnificus require intensive medical care, including limb amputations, to survive. This bacterium is often referred to as a flesh-eating bacteria because it can cause necrotizing fasciitis, a severe infection in which the flesh surrounding an open wound begins to die. If not treated in a timely manner, the consequences can be deadly, with the CDC reporting that about 1 in 5 people with this infection die, sometimes within a day or two of becoming ill.
What are the symptoms of Vibrio vulnificus?
Symptoms of a Vibrio vulnificus infection may include the following:
In cases where the infection reaches the bloodstream, symptoms can include:
Dangerously low blood pressure
Blistering skin lesions
Open-wound infections that spread to other parts of the body exhibit the following symptoms:
Leakage of fluids.
Who’s at the greatest risk for Vibrio vulnificus?
While anyone can potentially be infected with Vibrio vulnificus, the elderly, individuals with liver disease, cancer, a weakened immune system or those taking medication to reduce stomach acid levels are at higher risk of infection and complications, according to New York health officials.
It’s important to note that infections can also occur through activities such as swimming in warm saltwater or brackish water—commonly found where rivers meet the sea. As such, those with open cuts, scrapes, recent surgical wounds, piercings or tattoos are also particularly vulnerable
How is the infection diagnosed and treated?
Diagnosis of a Vibrio vulnificus infection is made when Vibrio bacteria are detected in a patient’s wound, blood or stool. Antibiotics are the primary treatment, but in severe cases, amputation of affected limbs may be necessary to remove dead or infected tissue.
Preventing Vibrio vulnificus infections: Dos and Don’ts
To reduce the risk of a Vibrio vulnificus infection, authorities recommend the following precautions:
Do not consume raw or undercooked oysters or other shellfish, especially if you have a compromised immune system.
If you have a wound (including from a recent surgery, piercing or tattoo), avoid contact with saltwater or brackish water whenever possible, including wading at the beach.
Cover any wounds with a waterproof bandage if there’s a chance they could come into contact with saltwater, brackish water, marine life or raw or undercooked seafood and their juices. This contact can also occur during everyday seaside activities such as swimming, fishing or simply walking on the beach.
After any exposure to saltwater, brackish water, marine life, raw seafood or their juices, thoroughly wash wounds and cuts with soap and water.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Have scientists found any flesh-eating bacteria?
Scientists haven’t found any flesh-eating bacteria because technically, Vibrio vulnificus doesn’t eat flesh. However, it does create dangerous and life-threatening wounds.
Where is Vibrio vulnificus found?
Vibrio vulnificus is naturally found in saltwater and coastal environments such as estuaries, rivers, deltas, shorelines and deep ocean surfaces.
How does Vibrio vulnificus spread?
People can get infected with Vibrio vulnificus when they eat raw shellfish, particularly oysters. Since it is naturally found in warm marine waters, people with open wounds can be exposed to Vibrio vulnificus through direct contact with seawater. Most infections occur between May and October when warmer weather prevails, according to New York state health officials.
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