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Two Florida men infected by Indian River Lagoon's flesh-eating bacteria

1:36 PM, Oct 2, 2013   |    comments
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People hold hands and stand on the Melbourne Causeway bridge during Hands Across the Lagoon, an event to highlight the plight of the Indian River Lagoon.

 


 


Melbourne, FL (Florida Today) -- Two Brevard County men have recovered from a potentially fatal flesh-eating bacteria that infected their skin after they went fishing in the Indian River Lagoon.

They were among 27 reported cases of infections from Vibrio vulnificus, which has killed nine people this year in Florida, most recently a 59-year-old Flagler County man.

Henry Konietzky, 59, died Sept. 23 after walking knee deep in the Halifax River near Ormond Beach on Sept. 21 to set crab traps. By Sunday, he noticed he had a bug bite-like sore on his leg.

On Aug. 26, health officials confirmed that a 62-year-old Rockledge man was infected while fishing in the Indian River Lagoon.

Then on Monday, officials confirmed that a 74-year-old Melbourne man also had caught the infection while fishing in the lagoon.

"They both got skin lesions," said Brevard County Health Director Heidar Heshmati.

"It's not that serious," Heshmati said of an infection contracted through an open wound. "But you will have a huge infection in the skin and you will be treated for that."

But infections in high-risk individuals, such as those with liver disease or cancer, have a 50 percent fatality rate.

About half of infected wounds require surgical removal of damaged tissue or amputation.

The bacteria is much more serious when ingested. Eating a single contaminated oyster can kill.

Brevard has had 32 cases of Vibrio vulnificus infections since 1993, according to a state health department database.

"Every year we have between one to four cases," Heshmati said.

Florida averages 50 cases, 45 hospitalizations and 16 deaths annually, most from the Gulf Coast region, according to the Florida Department of Health. Nationally, there are about 95 cases, 85 hospitalizations and 35 deaths.

The bacteria rarely cause disease, and as a result is underreported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 1988 and 2006, CDC received reports of more than 900 infections from the Gulf Coast states, where most cases happen.

Illness usually begins within one to three days of exposure, but up to a week later for a small percentage of cases, according to CDC. Symptoms include fever, swelling and redness of skin on arms or legs, with blood-tinged blisters, low blood pressure and shock.

Health officials urge people to cook all seafood thoroughly and to avoid going into the water with open wounds. Even an ant bite or any tiny wound can allow an entry point for the bacteria.

Vibrio vulnificus belongs to the same family of bacterium as those that cause cholera. It normally lives in warm salty water and is part of a group of bacteria called "halophilic" because they require salt.

It dies at salt levels typical of the ocean but thrives at lower to moderate salt concentrations, such as those found in the lagoon.

The bacteria is most dangerous when ingested in oysters or other contaminated food.

But of the nine deaths this year in Florida, health officials say four were likely from exposure to seawater, three from eating raw oysters and two from undetermined routes of exposure.

Recent studies have shown that rising water temperatures have increased the risk of Vibrio vulnificus infection in higher latitudes, especially the northern European countries that surround the Baltic Sea.

But the bacteria has long been here.

"I don't know that there's any increase at all," Jim Oliver, a professor of microbiology at UNC-Charlotte, said of the recent cases in Florida.

"There are more cases in Florida than anywhere else."

Because it needs salt water, Vibrio vulnificus doesn't come from septic tanks or sewage that can leak into the Indian River Lagoon. But nutrients from sewage can help it thrive.

As always, it's swim at your own risk.

"I don't think Indian River is good for swimming or to expose your body to that water," Heshmati said.

What is Vibrio vulnificus?

A bacterium in the same family as those that cause cholera. It normally lives in warm seawater and is part of a group of bacteria called "halophilic" because they require salt. 

What are the symptoms?
Among healthy people, ingestion can cause vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. In individuals with compromised immune systems, especially those with chronic liver disease, the bacterium can infect the bloodstream, causing a severe and life-threatening illness. Anyone showing signs of any these symptoms after eating raw oysters should seek medical attention immediately. Bloodstream infections are fatal about 50 percent of the time. 

What are the risk factors?
While not life-threatening to most healthy people, symptoms may occur within one or two days of ingestion and may include sudden chills, fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, shock and skin lesions. In people with certain medical conditions such as cancer, diabetes or liver disease death can occur within two days. Risk of death is almost 200 times greater in those with liver disease than those without liver disease. 

Sources: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Food and Drug Administration

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