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Alert: Potentially Deadly Bacteria In Local Waterways

Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

State and county health officials are sending out words of caution, after a case of vibrio vulnificus was confirmed in Escambia County.

No information is being released about the patient, other than it’s the sixth vibrio case in Escambia in the past three years, including another case earlier this year and the death of a resident in 2015. Last year, two Santa Rosa County residents died from the bacteria.

“Vibrio vulnificus is a bacteria that we find either in saltwater or brackish water,” says Dr. John Lanza, Director of the Florida Department of Health in Escambia County.

There are two reasons for that. One, it’s the growing season for the bacteria, so their numbers are increased significantly. And two, there are more people in the water during that time.

“Most of the time, individuals who are healthy usually don’t have problems with this particular bacteria,” Lanza says. “Usually, [it’s] older people, younger people, or those with immune system problems.”

There are a couple of ways to contract vibrio vulnificus – the first is eating raw or undercooked oysters or other shellfish.

“You get a gastro-intestinal disease, in which you have nausea, vomiting [and] diarrhea,” said Lanza. “It usually goes away after a few days. But a few people who have a lower immune system could have a very serious outcome. So that’s why we always recommend thoroughly cooking oysters and other shellfish.”

The other way, which Lanza says is becoming more common, involves having an open wound and swimming in waters where the bacteria lurks, or being cut or scratched by something while in the water.

“Like a crab or a shell, either in the water or out of the water,” sad Lanza. “That causes the bacteria to sometimes get into the skin through the wound, and can enter the bloodstream.”

Symptoms of water-borne infection can include redness of the area around the wound; and streaking up the legs toward the groin, if the legs were scratched. Lanza says those are significant displays of infection. 

Credit cdc.gov

“You can try covering [the wounds] but it’s usually not worth the risk; so it’s better not to go into beach water or brackish water,” Lanza says. “If you should get cut in the water, get out immediately, and wash the area. If it starts getting red, inflamed or any discharge from it, see your physician or emergency department immediately.”

The bacteria can also cause other symptoms -- fever and chills, decreased blood pressure (septic shock) and blistering skin lesions that are blood-tinged. Dr. John Lanza says they monitor vibrio vulnificus cases in Escambia County, and the information can be found online, at www.escambia.floridahealth.gov, and at www.cdc.gov.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.