Stay Alert: Flesh-Eating Disease Expands through Warming Beach Waters

With the summer vacation season in full swing, news reports of bacterial disease in the warming waters of Florida’s Gulf of Mexico up to the east coast of Chesapeake Bay are becoming too frequent to ignore. We’ll note right off the top: this has nothing to do with the infamous red or green tides that have blemished Florida’s western shores the past couple of years.

The disease—necrotizing fasciitis, also known as “flesh-eating disease”—has been claiming increasing  numbers in these areas, and Florida’s Department of Health and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have issued advisories warning of risks primarily to the elderly with compromised immune conditions, chronic kidney disease, or cancer; people of any age with cuts, scrapes, burns, insect bites, skin punctures or surgical wounds; and—most sadly—perfectly healthy kids with scraped or bruised toes or knees just playing in the ocean.

Vicious and virulent

In Florida, a previously healthy 12-year-old Ohio girl was stricken while playing in the surf near Destin, in Florida’s panhandle. After three days of increasingly painful swelling in the wounded leg, emergency room physicians administered rounds of antibiotics and kept cutting away decayed tissue to try to save her limb, and ultimately her life. They have so far been successful. Her mother believes the infection entered her skin through a scrape on the leg caused by a skateboarding incident a few days earlier.

In another similar incident, a 77-year-old woman walking along a beach on Anna Maria Island on Florida’s west coast scraped her leg while in the surf and within a few hours was rushed to hospital where she was administered antibiotics and underwent repeated surgeries. Thirteen days later she died of massive infection.

A man fishing off the west coast of Florida cut his hand on a fishhook and, thanks to fast action in getting him to a hospital in Tampa, he survived. And another middle-aged man from Ohio came close to having a foot surgically amputated after being infected while walking in the Weedon Island Preserve near Tampa.

Meanwhile, five people in the Chesapeake Bay area were infected and aggressively treated with antibiotics after eating or handling raw or undercooked shellfish. But one of them, a 64-year-old man who cut his hand while cleaning crabs, died. All were diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis.

There will be more reports this summer and likely throughout the winter season, as waters around Florida never cool off enough to immunize against the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria that is thought to be the water-borne agent of this disease.

But first, some facts

Necrotizing fasciitis is not a newly discovered disease.  It was first given its name in 1952, and to date it has been far more prevalent on land among people infected by the more common group A streptococcus bacteria that also enters the body through cuts, skin punctures, and scratches while the host is tending roses or planting tubers or doing other similar, benign household tasks. According to the CDC, one out of three people with this disease can be expected to die of its infection.

The CDC projects that since 2010, between 700 and 1,200 cases of necrotizing fasciitis caused by group A strep (the same bacteria that causes strep throat) are diagnosed each year. But it is the sudden emergence of the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria thriving in warming, mainly brackish (mixture of fresh and salty) waters that has caught the attention of researchers and clinicians—and the media.

In its most recent advisory on the progress of this disease, the Florida Department of Health emphasizes that healthy people with strong immune systems who do not have fresh cuts, scrapes, or breaks in the skin should be able to enjoy the water. It is not thought to be contagious as is the flu or measles. It is a complication of a bacterial infection that has not been treated promptly or swiftly enough.

According to the Florida Department of Health, the key to avoiding infection is prevention:

  • Avoid walking, sitting, or swimming in gulf or bay waters while you have open wounds, as scratches or any skin punctures can allow water-borne bacteria to get below the skin’s surface where they can proliferate rapidly.
  • Clean wounds, even small ones, thoroughly and quickly. Rinsing with fresh water can reduce the risk of infection.
  • Cover wounds with clean, dry bandages until healed and don’t delay first aid of even minor, non-infected wounds like blisters, scrapes, or any break in the skin.
  • Get medical treatment immediately if there are any signs of infection such as redness, swelling, fever, nausea, or severe pain near or around the wound.
  • And don’t limit these precautions to exposure in gulfs or bays. Practice these same procedures after using any warm-water enclosures, such as hot tubs or pools.

Remember, your travel insurance will in most cases cover your visit to an emergency room or urgent care center. That’s why you buy insurance. And don’t think a one-hour visit to a hospital emergency room would only cost pocket change. You could be talking thousands of dollars. So, if there is time, call your insurer first and get advice where to go for medical attention. If in doubt, just get to the ER first, and then call the number on the emergency wallet card given you by your insurer. Don’t procrastinate. Think, then act.

And don’t count on the advent of cooler temperatures in the winter months to insulate you from this growing risk. The water temperature in Florida, or even south Texas, never dips low enough to give you that assurance.

This is an ongoing story. We shall hear more of it when health authorities advance their reports over the coming months. We’ll keep you posted.

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