“I wrote this article a few years back, but was reminded of it again after reading that the recent floodwaters of Harvey and Irma can expose all of those dealing with floodwater to these dangers. Floodwaters are contaminated with a host of compounds, from sewage, pesticides, chemicals and Vibrio. Anyone who is working in or exposed to floodwaters should be extremely vigilant with open cuts or exposure. Get medical help immediatly if you see reddened areas or have any symptoms at all. We are even getting reports of raw sewage having to be pumped out of lift stations that are overwhelmed by recent storm water and the raw sewage will directly flow into the Indian River. This is reported to be the only option to prevent it from backing up into people’s houses. These are crazy times and one must be vigilant against these invisible issues”. – Capt. Scott
It wasn’t all that many years ago that I had never heard of Vibrio bacteria despite the fact that it lives in the same warm saltwater where I love to wade, snorkel and fish. I heard about it when a gentleman was out doing just that, wading and fishing, and did not realize that he had become infected with Vibrio vulnificus until it was too late and he lost his life. The crazy part is how quickly it can become a life-threatening situation.
Now, unlike the media, my goal is not to sensationalize a headline, but to share what I’m beginning to learn about this remote, but possible infection. I’m not claiming to be an expert either, but here are some of the basics from the CDC and much of it is common sense once you’re aware of the risks.
My suddenly peaked interest stems from an incident with my family the other day out in the boat.
We pulled up to a sandy beach and the girls wanted to get out and wade for a bit. I didn’t hesitate and pulled up and we all got out on a shallow sandy stretch. My oldest daughter was barefoot, but I said, “you’ll be fine”, just stay nearby. Of course “Wham” she quickly found the only barnacle-covered rock around and got some minor cuts on her toes. We cleaned them up and headed home for a thorough cleaning. As I rode back, I felt guilty that she got cut, when I should have known better, but then I remembered stories of Vibrio and open wounds. Now that distant fear of “what if” crept into my brain and even though you know it’s unlikely, you can’t help but worry. She healed up fine and no harm done, lesson learned. But it precipitated my need to learn more about this rare, but seriously dangerous possibility.
So here are some facts from the CDC about Vibrio infections.
- Vibrio bacteria is contracted by ingesting infected raw seafood or by the bacteria entering an open wound. It cannot be transferred from one person to another. The largest percentage of infections comes from eating infected, raw seafood like oysters.
- A healthy individual’s immune system can naturally defend against a minor introduction of Vibrio cells. Symptoms for healthy people who eat infected seafood can be vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. If contracted from an open cut, the area can turn red quickly and then develop ulcerations and skin breakdown.
- A person with any type of immune deficiency is 80 times more likely to develop serious infections. If these people ingest Vibrio, especially someone with liver issues, a serious and life threatening blood infection can result. Symptoms can be fever, chills, decreased blood pressure (septic shock), and blistering skin lesions.
These blood infections are fatal 50% of the time.
- Many people don’t realize they have a suppressed immune condition. Many steroids, cancer drugs, and recreational drugs can make you a candidate for vulnerability to Vibrio infections.
- If you suspect something is going on after eating raw seafood or recent exposure to warm salt or brackish water, then you should proceed immediately to the nearest emergency facility and make sure the doctors know that you may have Vibrio exposure. The culture techniques for Vibrio are different from regular ones and knowing what to look for can speed up your diagnosis.
- Not acting quickly can cost you your life or a limb. Amputation of infected limbs is a very common consequence of not catching Vibrio infections in time. The infections can show symptoms within four hours of contact and things proceed quickly after that.
- Treatment for Vibrio infections consists of various combinations of antibiotics, tissue removal or amputation.
Again, not that many people contract an infection, though Vibrio bacteria are naturally occurring inhabitants of warm saltwater. It prefers to attach to objects like oysters and hard structures versus being free-floating in the water. Remember the most likely contact point is eating raw seafood. Between 1988 and 2006 the CDC received reports of more than 900 cases of V. vulnificus. There has been a slight increase in incidents, but a national reporting system has been implemented to help track the frequency of cases and help in the management of shellfish beds suspected of contamination.
85% of all infections occur between May and October when environmental factors are favorable for V. vulnificus to flourish. These conditions are warm water and moderate salinity. Saltier waters tend to have fewer bacteria and more predatory bacteria that feed on the Vibrio bacteria, keeping their numbers in check.
How to prevent:
The number one prevention is not to eat raw seafood. Proper cooking and storage prevents infection by ingestion.
If you do get a cut or puncture while enjoying your watery activities, take a moment to clean the wound with peroxide or similar sterilizing agents and monitor actively for any increased redness or any signs of infection. Ignoring signs or “being tough” could cost you a limb or your life, so don’t.
So while we don’t want to worry all the time about what could happen in life, we also need to balance that with being aware and preventing the tragic consequences of chance.
Knowledge is one of the best tools to help strike that balance and help us survive our fun!
To learn more, visit the CDC site at http://www.cdc.gov/vibrio/vibriov.html.